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Capitalism vs. The Climate 




Copyright © 2014 Naomi Klein 

All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright 
Conventions. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any 
electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval 
systems, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a 
reviewer, who may quote brief passages in a review. Published in 2014 by 
Alfred A. Knopf Canada, a division of Random House of Canada Limited, a 
Penguin Random House Company, and simultaneously in the United States 
of America by Simon & Schuster, New York. Distributed in Canada Bay 
Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto. 

Knopf Canada and colophon are registered trademarks. 

Library and Archives Canada Cataloguing in Publication 

Klein, Naomi, author 
This changes everything : capitalism vs. the climate / Naomi Klein. 

Includes bibliographical references. 

ISBN 978-0-307-40^9^ 
eBook ISBN 978-0-307-40202-8 

r. Climatic changes — Economic aspects. 2. Climatic changes — Political 
aspects. 3. Climatic changes — Social aspects. 4. Capitalism. 5. Global 

environmental change. I. Title. 

QC903.K64 2or4 

363.738 74 



Ra nc.lom House 


For Toma 

"We need to remember that the work of our time is bigger than 
climate change. We need to be setting our sights higher and deeper. 
What we're really talking about, if we're honest with ourselves, is 
transforming everything about the way we live on this planet." 

-Rebecca Tarbotton, Executive Director of the Rainforest Action Network, 
1973-2012 1 

"In my books I've imagined people salting the Gulf Stream, damming 
the glaciers sliding off the Greenland ice cap, pumping ocean water 
into the dry basins of the Sahara and Asia to create salt seas, pumping 
melted ice from Antarctica north to provide freshwater, genetically 
engineering bacteria to sequester more carbon in the roots of trees, 
raising Florida 30 feet to get it back above water, and (hardest of all) 
comprehensively changing capitalism." 

-Science fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson, 2012" 



Other Books by This Author 

Title Page 




Introduction One Way or Another, Everything Changes 


01. The Right Is Right: The Revolutionary Power of Climate Change 

02. Hot Money: How Free Market Fundamentalism Helped Overheat the Planet 

03. Public and Paid For: Overcoming the Ideological Blocks to the Next 

04. Planning and Banning: Slapping the Invisible Hand, Building a Movement 

05. Beyond Extractivism: Confronting the Climate Denier Within 


06. Fruits, Not Roots: The Disastrous Merger of Big Business and Big Green 

07. No Messiahs: The Green Billionaires Won't Save Us 

08. Dimming the Sun: The Solution to Pollution Is . . . Pollution? 


09. Blockadia: The New Climate Warriors 

10. Love Will Save This Place: Democracy, Divestment, and the Wins So Far 

11. You and What Army? Indigenous Rights and the Power of Keeping Our 

12. Sharing the Sky: The Atmospheric Commons and the Power of Paying Our 

13. The Right to Regenerate: Moving from Extraction to Renewal 

Conclusion The Leap Years: Just Enough Time for Impossible 





"Most projections of climate change presume that future changes- 
greenhouse gas emissions, temperature increases and effects such as sea 
level rise-will happen incrementally. A given amount of emission will 
lead to a given amount of temperature increase that will lead to a given 
amount of smooth incremental sea level rise. However, the geological 
record for the climate reflects instances where a relatively small change 
in one element of climate led to abrupt changes in the system as a whole. 
In other words, pushing global temperatures past certain thresholds 
could trigger abrupt, unpredictable and potentially irreversible changes 
that have massively disruptive and large-scale impacts. At that point, 
even if we do not add any additional CO2 to the atmosphere, potentially 
unstoppable processes are set in motion. We can think of this as sudden 
climate brake and steering failure where the problem and its 
consequences are no longer something we can control." 

— Report by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, 

the world's largest general scientific society, 2014 

"I love that smell of the emissions." 

— Sarah Palin, 201 1 ? 

A voice came over the intercom: would the passengers of Flight 3935, scheduled 
to depart Washington, D.C., for Charleston, South Carolina, kindly collect their 
carry-on luggage and get off the plane. 

They went down the stairs and gathered on the hot tarmac. There they saw 
something unusual: the wheels of the US Airways jet had sunk into the black 


pavement as if it were wet cement. The wheels were lodged so deep, in fact, that 
the truck that came to tow the plane away couldn't pry it loose. The airline had 
hoped that without the added weight of the flight's thirty-five passengers, the 
aircraft would be light enough to pull. It wasn't. Someone posted a picture: "Why 
is my flight cancelled? Because DC is so damn hot that our plane sank 4 into the 

Eventually, a larger, more powerful vehicle was brought in to tow the plane and 
this time it worked; the plane finally took off, three hours behind schedule. A 


spokesperson for the airline blamed the incident on "very unusual temperatures." 

The temperatures in the summer of 2012 were indeed unusually hot. (As they 
were the year before and the year after.) And it's no mystery why this has been 
happening: the profligate burning of fossil fuels, the very thing that US Airways 
was bound and determined to do despite the inconvenience presented by a melting 
tarmac. This irony — the fact that the burning of fossil fuels is so radically changing 
our climate that it is getting in the way of our capacity to burn fossil fuels — did not 
stop the passengers of Flight 3935 from reembarking and continuing their 
journeys. Nor was climate change mentioned in any of the major news coverage 
of the incident. 

I am in no position to judge these passengers. All of us who live high consumer 
lifestyles, wherever we happen to reside, are, metaphorically, passengers on Flight 
3935. Faced with a crisis that threatens our survival as a species, our entire culture 
is continuing to do the very thing that caused the crisis, only with an extra dose of 
elbow grease behind it. Like the airline bringing in a truck with a more powerful 
engine to tow that plane, the global economy is upping the ante from conventional 
sources of fossil fuels to even dirtier and more dangerous versions — bitumen from 
the Alberta tar sands, oil from deepwater drilling, gas from hydraulic fracturing 
(fracking), coal from detonated mountains, and so on. 

Meanwhile, each supercharged natural disaster produces new irony-laden 
snapshots of a climate increasingly inhospitable to the very industries most 
responsible for its warming. Like the 2013 historic floods in Calgary that forced 
the head offices of the oil companies mining the Alberta tar sands to go dark and 
send their employees home, while a train carrying flammable petroleum products 
teetered on the edge of a disintegrating rail bridge. Or the drought that hit the 
Mississippi River one year earlier, pushing water levels so low that barges loaded 
with oil and coal were unable to move for days, while they waited for the Army 
Corps of Engineers to dredge a channel (they had to appropriate funds allocated to 
rebuild from the previous year's historic flooding along the same waterway). Or 


the coal-fired power plants in other parts of the country that were temporarily shut 
down because the waterways that they draw on to cool their machinery were either 
too hot or too dry (or, in some cases, both). 

Living with this kind of cognitive dissonance is simply part of being alive in this 
jarring moment in history, when a crisis we have been studiously ignoring is hitting 
us in the face — and yet we are doubling down on the stuff that is causing the crisis 
in the first place. 

I denied climate change for longer than I care to admit. I knew it was happening, 
sure. Not like Donald Trump and the Tea Partiers going on about how the 
continued existence of winter proves it's all a hoax. But I stayed pretty hazy on the 
details and only skimmed most of the news stories, especially the really scary ones. 
I told myself the science was too complicated and that the environmentalists were 
dealing with it. And I continued to behave as if there was nothing wrong with the 
shiny card in my wallet attesting to my "elite" frequent flyer status. 

A great many of us engage in this kind of climate change denial. We look for a 
split second and then we look away. Or we look but then turn it into a joke ("more 
signs of the Apocalypse!"). Which is another way of looking away. 

Or we look but tell ourselves comforting stories about how humans are clever 
and will come up with a technological miracle that will safely suck the carbon out 
of the skies or magically turn down the heat of the sun. Which, I was to discover 
while researching this book, is yet another way of looking away. 

Or we look but try to be hyper-rational about it ("dollar for dollar it's more 
efficient to focus on economic development than climate change, since wealth is 
the best protection from weather extremes") — as if having a few more dollars will 
make much difference when your city is underwater. Which is a way of looking 
away if you happen to be a policy wonk. 

Or we look but tell ourselves we are too busy to care about something so distant 
and abstract — even though we saw the water in the subways in New York City, 
and the people on their rooftops in New Orleans, and know that no one is safe, the 
most vulnerable least of all. And though perfectly understandable, this too is a way 
of looking away. 

Or we look but tell ourselves that all we can do is focus on ourselves. Meditate 
and shop at farmers' markets and stop driving — but forget trying to actually change 
the systems that are making the crisis inevitable because that's too much "bad 
energy" and it will never work. And at first it may appear as if we are looking, 
because many of these lifestyle changes are indeed part of the solution, but we still 
have one eye tightly shut. 


Or maybe we do look — really look — but then, inevitably, we seem to forget. 
Remember and then forget again. Climate change is like that; it's hard to keep it 
in your head for very long. We engage in this odd form of on-again-off-again 
ecological amnesia for perfectly rational reasons. We deny because we fear that 
letting in the full reality of this crisis will change everything. And we are right." 

We know that if we continue on our current path of allowing emissions to rise 
year after year, climate change will change everything about our world. Major 
cities will very likely drown, ancient cultures will be swallowed by the seas, and 
there is a very high chance that our children will spend a great deal of their lives 
fleeing and recovering from vicious storms and extreme droughts. And we don't 
have to do anything to bring about this future. All we have to do is nothing. Just 
continue to do what we are doing now, whether it's counting on a techno-fix or 
tending to our gardens or telling ourselves we're unfortunately too busy to deal 
with it. 

All we have to do is not react as if this is a full-blown crisis. All we have to do 
is keep on denying how frightened we actually are. And then, bit by bit, we will 
have arrived at the place we most fear, the thing from which we have been averting 
our eyes. No additional effort required. 

There are ways of preventing this grim future, or at least making it a lot less dire. 
But the catch is that these also involve changing everything. For us high 
consumers, it involves changing how we live, how our economies function, even 
the stories we tell about our place on earth. The good news is that many of these 
changes are distinctly un-catastrophic. Many are downright exciting. But I didn't 
discover this for a long while. 

I remember the precise moment when I stopped averting my eyes to the reality 
of climate change, or at least when I first allowed my eyes to rest there for a good 
while. It was in Geneva, in April 2009, and I was meeting with Bolivia's 
ambassador to the World Trade Organization (WTO), who was then a surprisingly 
young woman named Angelica Navarro Llanos. Bolivia being a poor country with 
a small international budget, Navarro Llanos had recently taken on the climate 
portfolio in addition to her trade responsibilities. Over lunch in an empty Chinese 
restaurant, she explained to me (using chopsticks as props to make a graph of the 
global emission trajectory) that she saw climate change both as a terrible threat to 
her people — but also an opportunity. 

A threat for the obvious reasons: Bolivia is extraordinarily dependent on glaciers 
for its drinking and irrigation water and those white-capped mountains that tower 
over its capital were turning gray and brown at an alarming rate. The opportunity, 


Navarro Llanos said, was that since countries like hers had done almost nothing to 
send emissions soaring, they were in a position to declare themselves "climate 
creditors," owed money and technology support from the large emitters to defray 
the hefty costs of coping with more climate-related disasters, as well as to help 
them develop on a green energy path. 

She had recently given a speech at a United Nations climate conference in which 
she laid out the case for these kinds of wealth transfers, and she gave me a copy. 
"Millions of people," it read, "in small islands, least- developed countries, 
landlocked countries as well as vulnerable communities in Brazil, India and China, 
and all around the world — are suffering from the effects of a problem to which 
they did not contribute. ... If we are to curb emissions in the next decade, we need 
a massive mobilization larger than any in history. We need a Marshall Plan for the 
Earth. This plan must mobilize financing and technology transfer on scales never 
seen before. It must get technology onto the ground in every country to ensure we 
reduce emissions while raising people's quality of life. We have only a decade." 

Of course a Marshall Plan for the Earth would be very costly — hundreds of 
billions if not trillions of dollars (Navarro Llanos was reluctant to name a figure). 
And one might have thought that the cost alone would make it a nonstarter — after 
all, this was 2009 and the global financial crisis was in full swing. Yet the grinding 
logic of austerity — passing on the bankers' bills to the people in the form of public 
sector layoffs, school closures, and the like — had not yet been normalized. So 
rather than making Navarro Llanos' s ideas seem less plausible, the crisis had the 
opposite effect. 

We had all just watched as trillions of dollars were marshaled in a moment when 
our elites decided to declare a crisis. If the banks were allowed to fail, we were 
told, the rest of the economy would collapse. It was a matter of collective survival, 
so the money had to be found. In the process, some rather large fictions at the heart 
of our economic system were exposed (Need more money? Print some!). A few 
years earlier, governments took a similar approach to public finances after the 
September 11 terrorist attacks. In many Western countries, when it came to 
constructing the security/surveillance state at home and waging war abroad, 
budgets never seemed to be an issue. 

Climate change has never received the crisis treatment from our leaders, despite 
the fact that it carries the risk of destroying lives on a vastly greater scale than 
collapsed banks or collapsed buildings. The cuts to our greenhouse gas emissions 
that scientists tell us are necessary in order to greatly reduce the risk of catastrophe 
are treated as nothing more than gentle suggestions, actions that can be put off 


pretty much indefinitely. Clearly, what gets declared a crisis is an expression of 
power and priorities as much as hard facts. But we need not be spectators in all 
this: politicians aren't the only ones with the power to declare a crisis. Mass 
movements of regular people can declare one too. 

Slavery wasn't a crisis for British and American elites until abolitionism turned 
it into one. Racial discrimination wasn't a crisis until the civil rights movement 
turned it into one. Sex discrimination wasn't a crisis until feminism turned it into 
one. Apartheid wasn't a crisis until the anti-apartheid movement turned it into one. 

In the very same way, if enough of us stop looking away and decide that climate 
change is a crisis worthy of Marshall Plan levels of response, then it will become 
one, and the political class will have to respond, both by making resources 
available and by bending the free market rules that have proven so pliable when 
elite interests are in peril. We occasionally catch glimpses of this potential when a 
crisis puts climate change at the front of our minds for a while. "Money is no object 
in this relief effort. Whatever money is needed for it will be spent," declared British 
prime minister David Cameron — Mr. Austerity himself — when large parts of his 
country were underwater from historic flooding in February 2014 and the public 


was enraged that his government was not doing more to help. 

Listening to Navarro Llanos describe Bolivia's perspective, I began to 
understand how climate change — if treated as a true planetary emergency akin to 
those rising flood waters — could become a galvanizing force for humanity, leaving 
us all not just safer from extreme weather, but with societies that are safer and 
fairer in all kinds of other ways as well. The resources required to rapidly move 
away from fossil fuels and prepare for the coming heavy weather could pull huge 
swaths of humanity out of poverty, providing services now sorely lacking, from 
clean water to electricity. This is a vision of the future that goes beyond just 
surviving or enduring climate change, beyond "mitigating" and "adapting" to it in 
the grim language of the United Nations. It is a vision in which we collectively use 
the crisis to leap somewhere that seems, frankly, better than where we are right 

After that conversation, I found that I no longer feared immersing myself in the 
scientific reality of the climate threat. I stopped avoiding the articles and the 
scientific studies and read everything I could find. I also stopped outsourcing the 
problem to the environmentalists, stopped telling myself this was somebody else's 
issue, somebody else's job. And through conversations with others in the growing 
climate justice movement, I began to see all kinds of ways that climate change 
could become a catalyzing force for positive change — how it could be the best 


argument progressives have ever had to demand the rebuilding and reviving of 
local economies; to reclaim our democracies from corrosive corporate influence; 
to block harmful new free trade deals and rewrite old ones; to invest in starving 
public infrastructure like mass transit and affordable housing; to take back 
ownership of essential services like energy and water; to remake our sick 
agricultural system into something much healthier; to open borders to migrants 
whose displacement is linked to climate impacts; to finally respect Indigenous land 
rights — all of which would help to end grotesque levels of inequality within our 
nations and between them. 

And I started to see signs — new coalitions and fresh arguments — hinting at how, 
if these various connections were more widely understood, the urgency of the 
climate crisis could form the basis of a powerful mass movement, one that would 
weave all these seemingly disparate issues into a coherent narrative about how to 
protect humanity from the ravages of both a savagely unjust economic system and 
a destabilized climate system. I have written this book because I came to the 
conclusion that climate action could provide just such a rare catalyst. 

A People's Shock 

But I also wrote it because climate change can be a catalyst for a range of very 
different and far less desirable forms of social, political, and economic 

I have spent the last fifteen years immersed in research about societies 
undergoing extreme shocks — caused by economic meltdowns, natural disasters, 
terrorist attacks, and wars. And I have looked deeply into how societies change in 
these periods of tremendous stress. How these events change the collective sense 
of what is possible, for better but mostly for worse. As I discussed in my last 
book, The Shock Doctrine, over the past four decades corporate interests have 
systematically exploited these various forms of crisis to ram through policies that 
enrich a small elite — by lifting regulations, cutting social spending, and forcing 
large-scale privatizations of the public sphere. They have also been the excuse for 
extreme crackdowns on civil liberties and chilling human rights violations. 

And there are plenty of signs that climate change will be no exception — that, 
rather than sparking solutions that have a real chance of preventing catastrophic 
warming and protecting us from inevitable disasters, the crisis will once again be 
seized upon to hand over yet more resources to the 1 percent. You can see the early 


stages of this process already. Communal forests around the world are being turned 
into privatized tree farms and preserves so their owners can collect something 
called "carbon credits," a lucrative scam I'll explore later. There is a booming trade 
in "weather futures," allowing companies and banks to gamble on changes in the 
weather as if deadly disasters were a game on a Vegas craps table (between 2005 
and 2006 the weather derivatives market jumped nearly fivefold, from $9.7 
billion to $45.2 billion). Global reinsurance companies are making billions in 
profits, in part by selling new kinds of protection schemes to developing countries 
that have done almost nothing to create the climate crisis, but whose infrastructure 
is intensely vulnerable to its impacts." 

And in a moment of candor, the weapons giant Raytheon explained, "Expanded 
business opportunities are likely to arise as consumer behaviour and needs change 
in response to climate change." Those opportunities include not just more demand 
for the company's privatized disaster response services but also "demand for its 
military products and services as security concerns may arise as results of 


droughts, floods, and storm events occur as a result of climate change." This is 
worth remembering whenever doubts creep in about the urgency of this crisis: the 
private militias are already mobilizing. 

Droughts and floods create all kinds of business opportunities besides a growing 
demand for men with guns. Between 2008 and 2010, at least 261 patents were filed 
related to growing "climate-ready" crops — seeds supposedly able to withstand 
extreme weather conditions; of these patents close to 80 percent were controlled 
by six agribusiness giants, including Monsanto and Syngenta. Superstorm Sandy, 
meanwhile, has been a windfall for New Jersey real estate developers who have 
received millions for new construction in lightly damaged areas, while it continues 
to be a nightmare for those living in hard-hit public housing, much as the aftermath 
of Hurricane Katrina played out in New Orleans. 

None of this is surprising. Finding new ways to privatize the commons and profit 
from disaster is what our current system is built to do; left to its own devices, it is 
capable of nothing else. The shock doctrine, however, is not the only way societies 
respond to crises. We have all witnessed this in recent years as the financial 
meltdown that began on Wall Street in 2008 reverberated around the world. A 
sudden rise in food prices helped create the conditions for the Arab Spring. 
Austerity policies have inspired mass movements from Greece to Spain to Chile 
to the United States to Quebec. Many of us are getting a lot better at standing up 
to those who would cynically exploit crises to ransack the public sphere. And yet 
these protests have also shown that saying no is not enough. If opposition 


movements are to do more than burn bright and then burn out, they will need a 
comprehensive vision for what should emerge in the place of our failing system, 
as well as serious political strategies for how to achieve those goals. 

Progressives used to know how to do this. There is a rich populist history of 
winning big victories for social and economic justice in the midst of large-scale 
crises. These include, most notably, the policies of the New Deal after the market 
crash of 1929 and the birth of countless social programs after World War II. These 
policies were so popular with voters that getting them passed into law did not 
require the kind of authoritarian trickery that I documented in The Shock 
Doctrine. What was essential was building muscular mass movements capable of 
standing up to those defending a failing status quo, and that demanded a 
significantly fairer share of the economic pie for everyone. A few of the lasting 
(though embattled) legacies of these exceptional historical moments include: 
public health insurance in many countries, old age pensions, subsidized housing, 
and public funding for the arts. 

I am convinced that climate change represents a historic opportunity on an even 
greater scale. As part of the project of getting our emissions down to the levels 
many scientists recommend, we once again have the chance to advance policies 
that dramatically improve lives, close the gap between rich and poor, create huge 
numbers of good jobs, and reinvigorate democracy from the ground up. Rather 
than the ultimate expression of the shock doctrine — a frenzy of new resource grabs 
and repression — climate change can be a People's Shock, a blow from below. It 
can disperse power into the hands of the many rather than consolidating it in the 
hands of the few, and radically expand the commons, rather than auctioning it off 
in pieces. And where right-wing shock doctors exploit emergencies (both real and 
manufactured) in order to push through policies that make us even more crisis 
prone, the kinds of transformations discussed in these pages would do the exact 
opposite: they would get to the root of why we are facing serial crises in the first 
place, and would leave us with both a more habitable climate than the one we are 
headed for and a far more just economy than the one we have right now. 

But before any of these changes can happen — before we can believe that climate 
change can change us — we first have to stop looking away. 

"You have been negotiating all my life." So said Canadian college student Anjali 
Appadurai, as she stared down the assembled government negotiators at the 2011 
United Nations climate conference in Durban, South Africa. She was not 


exaggerating. The world's governments have been talking about preventing 
climate change for more than two decades; they began negotiating the year that 
Anjali, then twenty-one years old, was born. And yet as she pointed out in her 
memorable speech on the convention floor, delivered on behalf of all of the 
assembled young people: "In that time, you've failed to meet pledges, you've 
missed targets, and you've broken promises. "~ 

In truth, the intergovernmental body entrusted to prevent "dangerous" levels of 
climate change has not only failed to make progress over its twenty-odd years of 
work (and more than ninety official negotiation meetings since the agreement was 
adopted), it has overseen a process of virtually uninterrupted backsliding. Our 
governments wasted years fudging numbers and squabbling over start dates, 
perpetually trying to get extensions like undergrads with late term papers. 

The catastrophic result of all this obfuscation and procrastination is now 
undeniable. Preliminary data shows that in 2013, global carbon dioxide emissions 
were 61 percent higher than they were in 1990, when negotiations toward a climate 
treaty began in earnest. As MIT economist John Reilly puts it: "The more we talk 
about the need to control emissions, the more they are growing." Indeed the only 
thing rising faster than our emissions is the output of words pledging to lower them. 
Meanwhile, the annual U.N. climate summit, which remains the best hope for a 
political breakthrough on climate action, has started to seem less like a forum for 
serious negotiation than a very costly and high-carbon group therapy session, a 
place for the representatives of the most vulnerable countries in the world to vent 
their grief and rage while low-level representatives of the nations largely 


responsible for their tragedies stare at their shoes. 

This has been the mood ever since the collapse of the much-hyped 2009 U.N. 
climate summit in Copenhagen. On the last night of that massive gathering, I found 
myself with a group of climate justice activists, including one of the most 
prominent campaigners in Britain. Throughout the summit, this young man had 
been the picture of confidence and composure, briefing dozens of journalists a day 
on what had gone on during eachround of negotiations and what the various 
emission targets meant in the real world. Despite the challenges, his optimism 
about the summit's prospects never flagged. Once it was all over, however, and 
the pitiful deal was done, he fell apart before our eyes. Sitting in an overlit Italian 
restaurant, he began to sob uncontrollably. "I really thought Obama understood," 
he kept repeating. 

I have come to think of that night as the climate movement's coming of age: it 
was the moment when the realization truly sank in that no one was coming to save 


us. The British psychoanalyst and climate specialist Sally Weintrobe describes this 
as the summit's "fundamental legacy" — the acute and painful realization that our 
"leaders are not looking after us ... we are not cared for at the level of our very 


survival."^ No matter how many times we have been disappointed by the failings 
of our politicians, this realization still comes as a blow. It really is the case that we 
are on our own and any credible source of hope in this crisis will have to come 
from below. 

In Copenhagen, the major polluting governments — including the United States 
and China — signed a nonbinding agreement pledging to keep temperatures from 
increasing more than 2 degrees Celsius above where they were before we started 
powering our economies with coal. (That converts to an increase of 3.6 degrees 
Fahrenheit.) This well-known target, which supposedly represents the "safe" limit 
of climate change, has always been a highly political choice that has more to do 
with minimizing economic disruption than with protecting the greatest number of 
people. When the 2 degrees target was made official in Copenhagen, there were 
impassioned objections from many delegates who said the goal amounted to a 
"death sentence" for some low-lying island states, as well as for large parts of Sub- 
Saharan Africa. In fact it is a very risky target for all of us: so far, temperatures 
have increased by just .8 degree Celsius and we are already experiencing many 
alarming impacts, including the unprecedented melting of the Greenland ice sheet 
in the summer of 2012 and the acidification of oceans far more rapidly than 
expected. Allowing temperatures to warm by more than twice that amount will 
unquestionably have perilous consequences. 

In a 2012 report, the World Bank laid out the gamble implied by that target. "As 
global warming approaches and exceeds 2-degrees Celsius, there is a risk of 
triggering nonlinear tipping elements. Examples include the disintegration of the 
West Antarctic ice sheet leading to more rapid sea-level rise, or large-scale 
Amazon dieback drastically affecting ecosystems, rivers, agriculture, energy 
production, and livelihoods. This would further add to 21st-century global 
warming and impact entire continents."^ In other words, once we allow 
temperatures to climb past a certain point, where the mercury stops is not in our 

But the bigger problem — and the reason Copenhagen caused such great 
despair — is that because governments did not agree to binding targets, they are 
free to pretty much ignore their commitments. Which is precisely what is 
happening. Indeed, emissions are rising so rapidly that unless something radical 
changes within our economic structure, 2 degrees now looks like a Utopian dream. 


And it's not just environmentalists who are raising the alarm. The World Bank also 
warned when it released its report that "we're on track for a 4°C warmer world [by 
century's end] marked by extreme heat waves, declining global food stocks, loss 
of ecosystems and biodiversity, and life-threatening sea level rise." And the report 
cautioned that, "there is also no certainty that adaptation to a 4°C world is 
possible." Kevin Anderson, former director (now deputy director) of the Tyndall 
Centre for Climate Change Research, which has quickly established itself as one 
of the U.K.'s premier climate research institutions, is even blunter; he says 4 
degrees Celsius warming — 7.2 degrees Fahrenheit — is "incompatible with any 
reasonable characterization of an organized, equitable and civilized global 



We don't know exactly what a 4 degrees Celsius world would look like, but even 
the best-case scenario is likely to be calamitous. Four degrees of warming could 
raise global sea levels by 1 or possibly even 2 meters by 2100 (and would lock in 
at least a few additional meters over future centuries). This would drown some 
island nations such as the Maldives and Tuvalu, and inundate many coastal areas 
from Ecuador and Brazil to the Netherlands to much of California and the 
northeastern United States, as well as huge swaths of South and Southeast Asia. 
Major cities likely in jeopardy include Boston, New York, greater Los Angeles, 


Vancouver, London, Mumbai, Hong Kong, and Shanghai. 

Meanwhile, brutal heat waves that can kill tens of thousands of people, even in 
wealthy countries, would become entirely unremarkable summer events on every 
continent but Antarctica. The heat would also cause staple crops to suffer dramatic 
yield losses across the globe (it is possible that Indian wheat and U.S. corn could 
plummet by as much as 60 percent), this at a time when demand will be surging 
due to population growth and a growing demand for meat. And since crops will be 
facing not just heat stress but also extreme events such as wide-ranging droughts, 
flooding, or pest outbreaks, the losses could easily turn out to be more severe than 
the models have predicted. When you add ruinous hurricanes, raging wildfires, 
fisheries collapses, widespread disruptions to water supplies, extinctions, and 
globetrotting diseases to the mix, it indeed becomes difficult to imagine that a 
peaceful, ordered society could be sustained (that is, where such a thing exists in 
the first place). ~ 

And keep in mind that these are the optimistic scenarios in which warming is 
more or less stabilized at 4 degrees Celsius and does not trigger tipping points 
beyond which runaway warming would occur. Based on the latest modeling, it is 
becoming safer to assume that 4 degrees could bring about a number of extremely 


dangerous feedback loops — an Arctic that is regularly ice-free in September, for 
instance, or, according to one recent study, global vegetation that is too saturated 
to act as a reliable "sink," leading to more carbon being emitted rather than stored. 
Once this happens, any hope of predicting impacts pretty much goes out the 
window. And this process may be starting sooner than anyone predicted. In May 
2014, NASA and University of California, Irvine scientists revealed that glacier 
melt in a section of West Antarctica roughly the size of France now "appears 
unstoppable." This likely spells doom for the entire West Antarctic ice sheet, 
which according to lead study author Eric Rignot "comes with a sea level rise of 
between three and five metres. Such an event will displace millions of people 
worldwide." The disintegration, however, could unfold over centuries and there is 


still time for emission reductions to slow down the process and prevent the worst. 

Much more frightening than any of this is the fact that plenty of mainstream 
analysts think that on our current emissions trajectory, we are headed for even 
more than 4 degrees of warming. In 2011, the usually staid International Energy 
Agency (IEA) issued a report projecting that we are actually on track for 6 degrees 
Celsius — 10.8 degrees Fahrenheit — of warming. And as the IEA' s chief economist 
put it: "Everybody, even the school children, knows that this will have catastrophic 
implications for all of us." (The evidence indicates that 6 degrees of warming is 
likely to set in motion several major tipping points — not only slower ones such as 
the aforementioned breakdown of the West Antarctic ice sheet, but possibly more 
abrupt ones, like massive releases of methane from Arctic permafrost.) The 
accounting giant PricewaterhouseCoopers has also published a report warning 


businesses that we are headed for "4°C, or even 6°C" of warming.^ 

These various projections are the equivalent of every alarm in your house going 
off simultaneously. And then every alarm on your street going off as well, one by 
one by one. They mean, quite simply, that climate change has become an 
existential crisis for the human species. The only historical precedent for a crisis 
of this depth and scale was the Cold War fear that we were heading toward nuclear 
holocaust, which would have made much of the planet uninhabitable. But that was 
(and remains) a threat; a slim possibility, should geopolitics spiral out of control. 
The vast majority of nuclear scientists never told us that we were almost certainly 
going to put our civilization in peril if we kept going about our daily lives as usual, 
doing exactly what we were already doing, which is what the climate scientists 
have been telling us for years. 

As the Ohio State University climatologist Lonnie G. Thompson, a world- 
renowned specialist on glacier melt, explained in 2010, "Climatologists, like other 


scientists, tend to be a stolid group. We are not given to theatrical rantings about 
falling skies. Most of us are far more comfortable in our laboratories or gathering 
data in the field than we are giving interviews to journalists or speaking before 
Congressional committees. Why then are climatologists speaking out about the 
dangers of global warming? The answer is that virtually all of us are now 


convinced that global warming poses a clear and present danger to civilization." 

It doesn't get much clearer than that. And yet rather than responding with alarm 
and doing everything in our power to change course, large parts of humanity are, 
quite consciously, continuing down the same road. Only, like the passengers 
aboard Flight 3935, aided by a more powerful, dirtier engine. 

What is wrong with us? 

Really Bad Timing 

Many answers to that question have been offered, ranging from the extreme 
difficulty of getting all the governments in the world to agree on anything, to an 
absence of real technological solutions, to something deep in our human nature 
that keeps us from acting in the face of seemingly remote threats, to — more 
recently — the claim that we have blown it anyway and there is no point in even 
trying to do much more than enjoy the scenery on the way down. 

Some of these explanations are valid, but all are ultimately inadequate. Take the 
claim that it's just too hard for so many countries to agree on a course of action. It 
is hard. But many times in the past, the United Nations has helped governments to 
come together to tackle tough cross-border challenges, from ozone depletion to 
nuclear proliferation. The deals produced weren't perfect, but they represented real 
progress. Moreover, during the same years that our governments failed to enact a 
tough and binding legal architecture requiring emission reductions, supposedly 
because cooperation was too complex, they managed to create the World Trade 
Organization — an intricate global system that regulates the flow of goods and 
services around the planet, under which the rules are clear and violations are 
harshly penalized. 

The assertion that we have been held back by a lack of technological solutions 
is no more compelling. Power from renewable sources like wind and water 
predates the use of fossil fuels and is becoming cheaper, more efficient, and easier 
to store every year. The past two decades have seen an explosion of ingenious zero- 
waste design, as well as green urban planning. Not only do we have the technical 


tools to get off fossil fuels, we also have no end of small pockets where these low 
carbon lifestyles have been tested with tremendous success. And yet the kind of 
large-scale transition that would give us a collective chance of averting catastrophe 
eludes us. 

Is it just human nature that holds us back then? In fact we humans have shown 
ourselves willing to collectively sacrifice in the face of threats many times, most 
famously in the embrace of rationing, victory gardens, and victory bonds during 
World Wars I and II. Indeed to support fuel conservation during World War II, 
pleasure driving was virtually eliminated in the U.K., and between 1938 and 1944, 
use of public transit went up by 87 percent in the U.S. and by 95 percent in Canada. 
Twenty million U.S. households — representing three fifths of the population — 
were growing victory gardens in 1943, and their yields accounted for 42 percent 
of the fresh vegetables consumed that year. Interestingly, all of these activities 


together dramatically reduce carbon emissions. 

Yes, the threat of war seemed immediate and concrete but so too is the threat 
posed by the climate crisis that has already likely been a substantial contributor to 
massive disasters in some of the world's major cities. Still, we've gone soft since 
those days of wartime sacrifice, haven't we? Contemporary humans are too self- 
centered, too addicted to gratification to live without the full freedom to satisfy our 
every whim — or so our culture tells us every day. And yet the truth is that we 
continue to make collective sacrifices in the name of an abstract greater good all 
the time. We sacrifice our pensions, our hard-won labor rights, our arts and after- 
school programs. We send our kids to learn in ever more crowded classrooms, led 
by ever more harried teachers. We accept that we have to pay dramatically more 
for the destructive energy sources that power our transportation and our lives. We 
accept that bus and subway fares go up and up while service fails to improve or 
degenerates. We accept that a public university education should result in a debt 
that will take half a lifetime to pay off when such a thing was unheard of a 
generation ago. In Canada, where I live, we are in the midst of accepting that our 
mail can no longer be delivered to our homes. 

The past thirty years have been a steady process of getting less and less in the 
public sphere. This is all defended in the name of austerity, the current justification 
for these never-ending demands for collective sacrifice. In the past, other words 
and phrases, equally abstracted from daily life, have served a similar purpose: 
balanced budgets, increased efficiency, fostering economic growth. 

It seems to me that if humans are capable of sacrificing this much collective 
benefit in the name of stabilizing an economic system that makes daily life so much 


more expensive and precarious, then surely humans should be capable of making 
some important lifestyle changes in the interest of stabilizing the physical systems 
upon which all of life depends. Especially because many of the changes that need 
to be made to dramatically cut emissions would also materially improve the quality 
of life for the majority of people on the planet — from allowing kids in Beijing to 
play outside without wearing pollution masks to creating good jobs in clean energy 
sectors for millions. There seems to be no shortage of both short-term and medium- 
term incentives to do the right thing for our climate. 

Time is tight, to be sure. But we could commit ourselves, tomorrow, to radically 
cutting our fossil fuel emissions and beginning the shift to zero-carbon sources of 
energy based on renewable technology, with a full-blown transition underway 
within the decade. We have the tools to do that. And if we did, the seas would still 
rise and the storms would still come, but we would stand a much greater chance of 
preventing truly catastrophic warming. Indeed, entire nations could be saved from 
the waves. As Pablo Solon, Bolivia's former ambassador to the United Nations, 
puts it: "If I burned your house the least I can do is welcome you into my 


house . . . and if I'm burning it right now I should try to stop the fire now."^ 

But we are not stopping the fire. In fact we are dousing it with gasoline. After a 
rare decline in 2009 due to the financial crisis, global emissions surged by a 
whopping 5.9 percent in 2010 — the largest absolute increase since the Industrial 



So my mind keeps coming back to the question: what is wrong with us? What is 
really preventing us from putting out the fire that is threatening to burn down our 
collective house? 

I think the answer is far more simple than many have led us to believe: we have 
not done the things that are necessary to lower emissions because those things 
fundamentally conflict with deregulated capitalism, the reigning ideology for the 
entire period we have been struggling to find a way out of this crisis. We are stuck 
because the actions that would give us the best chance of averting catastrophe — 
and would benefit the vast majority — are extremely threatening to an elite minority 
that has a stranglehold over our economy, our political process, and most of our 
major media outlets. That problem might not have been insurmountable had it 
presented itself at another point in our history. But it is our great collective 
misfortune that the scientific community made its decisive diagnosis of the climate 
threat at the precise moment when those elites were enjoying more unfettered 
political, cultural, and intellectual power than at any point since the 1920s. Indeed, 
governments and scientists began talking seriously about radical cuts to 


greenhouse gas emissions in 1988 — the exact year that marked the dawning of 
what came to be called "globalization," with the signing of the 
agreement representing the world's largest bilateral trade relationship between 
Canada and the United States, later to be expanded into the North American Free 


Trade Agreement (NAFTA) with the inclusion of Mexico. 

When historians look back on the past quarter century of international 
negotiations, two defining processes will stand out. There will be the climate 
process: struggling, sputtering, failing utterly to achieve its goals. And there will 
be the corporate globalization process, zooming from victory to victory: from that 
first free trade deal to the creation of the World Trade Organization to the mass 
privatization of the former Soviet economies to the transformation of large parts 
of Asia into sprawling free-trade zones to the "structural adjusting" of Africa. 
There were setbacks to that process, to be sure — for example, popular pushback 
that stalled trade rounds and free trade deals. But what remained successful were 
the ideological underpinnings of the entire project, which was never really about 
trading goods across borders — selling French wine in Brazil, for instance, or U.S. 
software in China. It was always about using these sweeping deals, as well as a 
range of other tools, to lock in a global policy framework that provided maximum 
freedom to multinational corporations to produce their goods as cheaply as 
possible and sell them with as few regulations as possible — while paying as little 
in taxes as possible. Granting this corporate wishlist, we were told, would fuel 
economic growth, which would trickle down to the rest of us, eventually. The trade 
deals mattered only in so far as they stood in for, and plainly articulated, this far 
broader agenda. 

The three policy pillars of this new era are familiar to us all: privatization of the 
public sphere, deregulation of the corporate sector, and lower corporate taxation, 
paid for with cuts to public spending. Much has been written about the real-world 
costs of these policies — the instability of financial markets, the excesses of the 
super-rich, and the desperation of the increasingly disposable poor, as well as the 
failing state of public infrastructure and services. Very little, however, has been 
written about how market fundamentalism has, from the very first moments, 
systematically sabotaged our collective response to climate change, a threat that 
came knocking just as this ideology was reaching its zenith. 

The core problem was that the stranglehold that market logic secured over public 
life in this period made the most direct and obvious climate responses seem 
politically heretical. How, for instance, could societies invest massively in zero- 
carbon public services and infrastructure at a time when the public sphere was 


being systematically dismantled and auctioned off? How could governments 
heavily regulate, tax, and penalize fossil fuel companies when all such measures 
were being dismissed as relics of "command and control" communism? And how 
could the renewable energy sector receive the supports and protections it needed 
to replace fossil fuels when "protectionism" had been made a dirty word? 

A different kind of climate movement would have tried to challenge the extreme 
ideology that was blocking so much sensible action, joining with other sectors to 
show how unfettered corporate power posed a grave threat to the habitability of 
the planet. Instead, large parts of the climate movement wasted precious decades 
attempting to make the square peg of the climate crisis fit into the round hole of 
deregulated capitalism, forever touting ways for the problem to be solved by the 
market itself. (Though it was only years into this project that I discovered the 
depths of collusion between big polluters and Big Green.) 

But blocking strong climate action wasn't the only way that the triumph of 
market fundamentalism acted to deepen the crisis in this period. Even more 
directly, the policies that so successfully freed multinational corporations from 
virtually all constraints also contributed significantly to the underlying cause of 
global warming — rising greenhouse gas emissions. The numbers are striking: in 
the 1990s, as the market integration project ramped up, global emissions were 
going up an average of 1 percent a year; by the 2000s, with "emerging markets" 
like China now fully integrated into the world economy, emissions growth had 
sped up disastrously, with the annual rate of increase reaching 3.4 percent a year 
for much of the decade. That rapid growth rate continues to this day, interrupted 


only briefly in 2009 by the world financial crisis. 

With hindsight, it's hard to see how it could have turned out otherwise. The twin 
signatures of this era have been the mass export of products across vast distances 
(relentlessly burning carbon all the way), and the import of a uniquely wasteful 
model of production, consumption, and agriculture to every corner of the world 
(also based on the profligate burning of fossil fuels). Put differently, the liberation 
of world markets, a process powered by the liberation of unprecedented amounts 
of fossil fuels from the earth, has dramatically sped up the same process that is 
liberating Arctic ice from existence. 

As a result, we now find ourselves in a very difficult and slighty ironic position. 
Because of those decades of hardcore emitting exactly when we were supposed to 
be cutting back, the things we must do to avoid catastrophic warming are no longer 
just in conflict with the particular strain of deregulated capitalism that triumphed 


in the 1980s. They are now in conflict with the fundamental imperative at the heart 
of our economic model: grow or die. 

Once carbon has been emitted into the atmosphere, it sticks around for hundreds 
of years, some of it even longer, trapping heat. The effects are cumulative, growing 
more severe with time. And according to emissions specialists like the Tyndall 
Centre's Kevin Anderson (as well as others), so much carbon has been allowed to 
accumulate in the atmosphere over the past two decades that now our only hope of 
keeping warming below the internationally agreed-upon target of 2 degrees Celsius 
is for wealthy countries to cut their emissions by somewhere in the neighborhood 


of 8-10 percent a year.^ The "free" market simply cannot accomplish this task. 
Indeed, this level of emission reduction has happened only in the context of 
economic collapse or deep depressions. 

I'll be delving deeper into those numbers in Chapter 2 , but the bottom line is 
what matters here: our economic system and our planetary system are now at war. 
Or, more accurately, our economy is at war with many forms of life on earth, 
including human life. What the climate needs to avoid collapse is a contraction in 
humanity's use of resources; what our economic model demands to avoid collapse 
is unfettered expansion. Only one of these sets of rules can be changed, and it' s 
not the laws of nature. 

Fortunately, it is eminently possible to transform our economy so that it is less 
resource-intensive, and to do it in ways that are equitable, with the most vulnerable 
protected and the most responsible bearing the bulk of the burden. Low-carbon 
sectors of our economies can be encouraged to expand and create jobs, while high- 
carbon sectors are encouraged to contract. The problem, however, is that this scale 
of economic planning and management is entirely outside the boundaries of our 
reigning ideology. The only kind of contraction our current system can manage is 
a brutal crash, in which the most vulnerable will suffer most of all. 

So we are left with a stark choice: allow climate disruption to change everything 
about our world, or change pretty much everything about our economy to avoid 
that fate. But we need to be very clear: because of our decades of collective denial, 
no gradual, incremental options are now available to us. Gentle tweaks to the status 
quo stopped being a climate option when we super sized the American Dream in 
the 1990s, and then proceeded to take it global. And it's no longer just radicals 
who see the need for radical change. In 2012, twenty-one past winners of the 
prestigious Blue Planet Prize — a group that includes James Hansen, former 
director of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, and Gro Harlem 
Brundtland, former prime minister of Norway — authored a landmark report. It 


stated that, "In the face of an absolutely unprecedented emergency, society has no 
choice but to take dramatic action to avert a collapse of civilization. Either we will 
change our ways and build an entirely new kind of global society, or they will be 


changed for us." 

That's tough for a lot of people in important positions to accept, since it 
challenges something that might be even more powerful than capitalism, and that 
is the fetish of centrism — of reasonableness, seriousness, splitting the difference, 
and generally not getting overly excited about anything. This is the habit of thought 
that truly rules our era, far more among the liberals who concern themselves with 
matters of climate policy than among conservatives, many of whom simply deny 
the existence of the crisis. Climate change presents a profound challenge to this 
cautious centrism because half measures won't cut it: "all of the above energy" 
programs, as U.S. President Barack Obama describes his approach, has about as 
much chance of success as an all of the above diet, and the firm deadlines imposed 
by science require that we get very worked up indeed. 

By posing climate change as a battle between capitalism and the planet, I am not 
saying anything that we don't already know. The battle is already under way, but 
right now capitalism is winning hands down. It wins every time the need for 
economic growth is used as the excuse for putting off climate action yet again, or 
for breaking emission reduction commitments already made. It wins when Greeks 
are told that their only path out of economic crisis is to open up their beautiful seas 
to high-risk oil and gas drilling. It wins when Canadians are told our only hope of 
not ending up like Greece is to allow our boreal forests to be flayed so we can 
access the semisolid bitumen from the Alberta tar sands. It wins when a park in 
Istanbul is slotted for demolition to make way for yet another shopping mall. It 
wins when parents in Beijing are told that sending their wheezing kids to school in 
pollution masks decorated to look like cute cartoon characters is an acceptable 
price for economic progress. It wins every time we accept that we have only bad 
choices available to us: austerity or extraction, poisoning or poverty. 

The challenge, then, is not simply that we need to spend a lot of money and 
change a lot of policies; it's that we need to think differently, radically differently, 
for those changes to be remotely possible. Right now, the triumph of market logic, 
with its ethos of domination and fierce competition, is paralyzing almost all serious 
efforts to respond to climate change. Cutthroat competition between nations has 
deadlocked U.N. climate negotiations for decades: rich countries dig in their heels 
and declare that they won't cut emissions and risk losing their vaulted position in 
the global hierarchy; poorer countries declare that they won't give up their right to 


pollute as much as rich countries did on their way to wealth, even if that means 
deepening a disaster that hurts the poor most of all. For any of this to change, a 
worldview will need to rise to the fore that sees nature, other nations, and our own 
neighbors not as adversaries, but rather as partners in a grand project of mutual 

That's a big ask. But it gets bigger. Because of our endless delays, we also have 
to pull off this massive transformation without delay. The International Energy 
Agency warns that if we do not get our emissions under control by a rather 
terrifying 2017, our fossil fuel economy will "lock-in" extremely dangerous 
warming. "The energy-related infrastructure then in place will generate all the 
CO2 emissions allowed" in our carbon budget for limiting warming to 2 degrees 
Celsius — "leaving no room for additional power plants, factories and other 
infrastructure unless they are zero-carbon, which would be extremely costly." This 
assumes, probably accurately, that governments would be unwilling to force the 
closure of still-profitable power plants and factories. As Fatih Birol, the IEA's 
chief economist, bluntly put it: "The door to reach two degrees is about to close. 
In 2017 it will be closed forever." In short, we have reached what some activists 
have started calling "Decade Zero" of the climate crisis: we either change now or 


we lose our chance. 

All this means that the usual free market assurances — A techno-fix is around the 
corner! Dirty development is just a phase on the way to a clean environment, look 
at nineteenth-century London! — simply don't add up. We don't have a century to 
spare for China and India to move past their Dickensian phases. Because of our 
lost decades, it is time to turn this around now. Is it possible? Absolutely. Is it 
possible without challenging the fundamental logic of deregulated capitalism? Not 
a chance. 

One of the people I met on this journey and who you will meet in these pages is 
Henry Red Cloud, a Lakota educator and entrepreneur who trains young Native 
people to become solar engineers. He tells his students that there are times when 
we must accept small steps forward — and there are other times "when you need to 


run like a buffalo." Now is one of those times when we must run. 


Power, Not Just Energy 

I was struck recently by a mea culpa of sorts, written by Gary Stix, a senior editor 
of Scientific American. Back in 2006, he edited a special issue on responses to 
climate change and, like most such efforts, the articles were narrowly focused on 
showcasing exciting low-carbon technologies. But in 2012 Stix wrote that he had 
overlooked a much larger and more important part of the story — the need to create 
the social and political context in which these technological shifts stand a chance 
of displacing the all too profitable status quo. "If we are ever to cope with climate 
change in any fundamental way, radical solutions on the social side are where we 
must focus, though. The relative efficiency of the next generation of solar cells is 


trivial by comparison." 

This book is about those radical changes on the social side, as well as on the 
political, economic, and cultural sides. What concerns me is less the mechanics of 
the transition — the shift from brown to green energy, from sole -rider cars to mass 
transit, from sprawling exurbs to dense and walk-able cities — than the power and 
ideological roadblocks that have so far prevented any of these long understood 
solutions from taking hold on anything close to the scale required. 

It seems to me that our problem has a lot less to do with the mechanics of solar 
power than the politics of human power — specifically whether there can be a shift 
in who wields it, a shift away from corporations and toward communities, which 
in turn depends on whether or not the great many people who are getting a rotten 
deal under our current system can build a determined and diverse enough social 
force to change the balance of power. I have also come to understand, over the 
course of researching this book, that the shift will require rethinking the very nature 
of humanity's power — our right to extract ever more without facing consequences, 
our capacity to bend complex natural systems to our will. This is a shift that 
challenges not only capitalism, but also the building blocks of materialism that 
preceded modern capitalism, a mentality some call "extractivism." 

Because, underneath all of this is the real truth we have been avoiding: climate 
change isn't an "issue" to add to the list of things to worry about, next to health 
care and taxes. It is a civilizational wake-up call. A powerful message — spoken in 
the language of fires, floods, droughts, and extinctions — telling us that we need an 
entirely new economic model and a new way of sharing this planet. Telling us that 
we need to evolve. 


Coming Out of Denial 

Some say there is no time for this transformation; the crisis is too pressing and the 
clock is ticking. I agree that it would be reckless to claim that the only solution to 
this crisis is to revolutionize our economy and revamp our worldview from the 
bottom up — and anything short of that is not worth doing. There are all kinds of 
measures that would lower emissions substantively that could and should be done 
right now. But we aren't taking those measures, are we? The reason is that by 
failing to fight these big battles that stand to shift our ideological direction and 
change the balance of who holds power in our societies, a context has been slowly 
created in which any muscular response to climate change seems politically 
impossible, especially during times of economic crisis (which lately seems to be 
all the time). 

So this book proposes a different strategy: think big, go deep, and move the 
ideological pole far away from the stifling market fundamentalism that has become 
the greatest enemy to planetary health. If we can shift the cultural context even a 
little, then there will be some breathing room for those sensible reformist policies 
that will at least get the atmospheric carbon numbers moving in the right direction. 
And winning is contagious so, who knows? Maybe within a few years, some of the 
ideas highlighted in these pages that sound impossibly radical today — like a basic 
income for all, or a rewriting of trade law, or real recognition of the rights of 
Indigenous people to protect huge parts of the world from polluting extraction — 
will start to seem reasonable, even essential. 

For a quarter of a century, we have tried the approach of polite incremental 
change, attempting to bend the physical needs of the planet to our economic 
model's need for constant growth and new profit-making opportunities. The results 
have been disastrous, leaving us all in a great deal more danger than when the 
experiment began. 

There are, of course, no guarantees that a more systemic approach will be any 
more successful — though there are, as will be explored later on, historical 
precedents that are grounds for hope. The truth is that this is the hardest book I 
have ever written, precisely because the research has led me to search out such 
radical responses. I have no doubt of their necessity, but I question their political 
feasibility every day, especially given that climate change puts us on such a tight 
and unforgiving deadline. 


It's been a harder book to write for personal reasons too. 

What gets me most are not the scary scientific studies about melting glaciers, 
the ones I used to avoid. It's the books I read to my two-year-old. Have You Ever 
Seen a Moose? is one of his favorites. It's about a bunch of kids that really, really, 
really want to see a moose. They search high and low — through a forest, a swamp, 
in brambly bushes and up a mountain, for "a long legged, bulgy nosed, branchy 
antlered moose." The joke is that there are moose hiding on each page. In the end, 
the animals all come out of hiding and the ecstatic kids proclaim: "We've never 
ever seen so many moose!" 

On about the seventy-fifth reading, it suddenly hit me: he might never see a 
moose. I tried to hold it together. I went back to my computer and began to write 
about my time in northern Alberta, tar sands country, where members of the Beaver 
Lake Cree Nation told me about how the moose had changed — one woman 
described killing a moose on a hunting trip only to find that the flesh had already 
turned green. I heard a lot about strange tumors too, which locals assumed had to 
do with the animals drinking water contaminated by tar sands toxins. But mostly I 
heard about how the moose were simply gone. 

And not just in Alberta. "Rapid Climate Changes Turn North Woods into Moose 
Graveyard," reads a May 2012 headline mScientific American. A year and a half 
later, The New York Timeswas reporting that one of Minnesota's two moose 
populations had declined from four thousand in the 1990s to just one hundred 



Will he ever see a moose? 

Then, the other day, I was slain by a miniature board book called Snuggle 
Wuggle. It involves different animals cuddling, with each posture given a 
ridiculously silly name: "How does a bat hug?" it asks. "Topsy turvy, topsy turvy." 
For some reason my son reliably cracks up at this page. I explain that it means 
upside down, because that's the way bats sleep. 

But all I could think about was the report of some 100,000 dead and dying bats 
raining down from the sky in the midst of record-breaking heat across part of 


Queensland, Australia. Whole colonies devastated. 
Will he ever see a bat? 

I knew I was in trouble when the other day I found myself bargaining with 
starfish. Red and purple ones are ubiquitous on the rocky coast of British Columbia 
where my parents live, where my son was born, and where I have spent about half 
of my adult life. They are always the biggest kid pleasers, because you can gently 
pick one up and give it a really good look. "This is the best day of my life!" my 


seven-year-old niece Miriam, visiting from Chicago, proclaimed after a long 
afternoon spent in the tide pools. But in the fall of 2013, stories began to appear 
about a strange wasting disease that was causing starfish along the Pacific Coast 
to die by the tens of thousands. Termed the "sea star wasting syndrome," multiple 
species were disintegrating alive, their vibrant bodies melting into distorted globs, 


with legs falling off and bodies caving in. Scientists were mystified. 

As I read these stories, I caught myself praying for the invertebrates to hang in 
for just one more year — long enough for my son to be amazed by them. Then I 
doubted myself: maybe it's better if he never sees a starfish at all — certainly not 
like this . . . 

When fear like that used to creep through my armor of climate change denial, I 
would do my utmost to stuff it away, change the channel, click past it. Now I try 
to feel it. It seems to me that I owe it to my son, just as we all owe it to ourselves 
and one another. But what should we do with this fear that comes from living on a 
planet that is dying, made less alive every day? First, accept that it won't go away. 
That it is a fully rational response to the unbearable reality that we are living in a 
dying world, a world that a great many of us are helping to kill, by doing things 
like making tea and driving to the grocery store and yes, okay, having kids. 

Next, use it. Fear is a survival response. Fear makes us run, it makes us leap, it 
can make us act superhuman. But we need somewhere to run to. Without that, the 
fear is only paralyzing. So the real trick, the only hope, really, is to allow the terror 
of an unlivable future to be balanced and soothed by the prospect of building 
something much better than many of us have previously dared hope. 

Yes, there will be things we will lose, luxuries some of us will have to give up, 
whole industries that will disappear. And it's too late to stop climate change from 
coming; it is already here, and increasingly brutal disasters are headed our way no 
matter what we do. But it's not too late to avert the worst, and there is still time to 
change ourselves so that we are far less brutal to one another when those disasters 
strike. And that, it seems to me, is worth a great deal. Because the thing about a 
crisis this big, this all-encompassing, is that it changes everything. It changes what 
we can do, what we can hope for, what we can demand from ourselves and our 
leaders. It means there is a whole lot of stuff that we have been told is inevitable 
that simply cannot stand. And it means that a whole lot of stuff we have been told 
is impossible has to start happening right away. 

Can we pull it off? All I know is that nothing is inevitable. Nothing except that 
climate change changes everything. And for a very brief time, the nature of that 
change is still up to us. 



"Coal, in truth, stands not beside but entirely above all 
other commodities. It is the material energy of the 
country — the universal aid — the factor in everything we 

-William Stanley Jevons, economist, 1865 1 

"How sad to think that nature speaks and mankind doesn't 

-Victor Hugo, 1840 2 




The Revolutionary Power of Climate Change 

"Climate scientists agree: climate change is happening here and now. 
Based on well-established evidence, about 97 percent of climate scientists 
have concluded that human-caused climate change is happening. This 
agreement is documented not just by a single study, but by a converging 
stream of evidence over the past two decades from surveys of scientists, 
content analyses of peer-reviewed studies, and public statements issued 
by virtually every membership organization of experts in this field." 

-Report by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, 20 14 1 

"There is no way this can be done without fundamentally changing the 
American way of life, choking off economic development, and putting 
large segments of our economy out of business." 

-Thomas J. Donohue, President of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, on 


ambitious carbon reduction" 

There is a question from a gentleman in the fourth row. 

He introduces himself as Richard Rothschild. He tells the crowd that he ran for 
county commissioner in Maryland's Carroll County because he had come to the 
conclusion that policies to combat global warming were actually "an attack on 
middle-class American capitalism." His question for the panelists, gathered in a 
Washington, D.C., Marriott, is: "To what extent is this entire movement simply a 


green Trojan horse, whose belly is full with red Marxist socioeconomic doctrine?" 

At the Heartland Institute's Sixth International Conference on Climate Change, 
held in late June 2011, the premier gathering for those dedicated to denying the 
overwhelming scientific consensus that human activity is warming the planet, this 
qualifies as a rhetorical question. Like asking a meeting of German central bankers 


if Greeks are untrustworthy. Still, the panelists aren't going to pass up an 
opportunity to tell the questioner just how right he is. 

First up is Marc Morano, editor of the denialists' go- to news site Climate Depot. 
"In America today we are regulated down to our shower heads, to our light bulbs, 
to our washing machines," he says. And "we're allowing the American SUV to die 
right before our eyes." If the greens have their way, Morano warns, we will be 

looking at "a CO2 budget for every man, woman, and child on the planet, 


monitored by an international body." 

Next is Chris Horner, a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute who 
specializes in harassing climate scientists with burdensome lawsuits and Freedom 
of Information Act fishing expeditions. He angles the table mic over to his mouth. 
"You can believe this is about the climate," he says darkly, "and many people do, 
but it's not a reasonable belief." Horner, whose prematurely silver hair makes him 
look like Anderson Cooper's frat boy doppelganger, likes to invoke 1960s 
counterculture icon Saul Alinsky: "The issue isn't the issue." The issue, 
apparently, is that "no free society would do to itself what this agenda 
requires.... The first step to [doing] that is to remove these nagging freedoms that 
keep getting in the way." 5 

Claiming that climate change is a plot to steal American freedom is rather tame 
by Heartland standards. Over the course of this two-day conference, I will hear 
modern environmentalism compared to virtually every mass-murderous chapter in 
human history, from the Catholic Inquisition to Nazi Germany to Stalin's Russia. 
I will learn that Barack Obama's campaign promise to support locally owned 
biofuels refineries was akin to Chairman Mao's scheme to put "a pig iron furnace 
in everybody's backyard" (the Cato Institute's Patrick Michaels). That climate 
change is "a stalking horse for National Socialism" (former Republican senator 
and retired astronaut Harrison Schmitt, referencing the Nazis). And that 
environmentalists are like Aztec priests, sacrificing countless people to appease 
the gods and change the weather (Marc Morano again). ~ 

But most of all, I will hear versions of the opinion expressed by the county 
commissioner in the fourth row: that climate change is a Trojan horse designed to 
abolish capitalism and replace it with some kind of "green communitarianism." As 
conference speaker Larry Bell succinctly puts it in his bookClimate of Corruption, 
climate change "has little to do with the state of the environment and much to do 

with shackling capitalism and transforming the American way of life in the 


interests of global wealth redistribution." 


Yes, there is a pretense that the delegates' rejection of climate science is rooted 
in serious disagreement about the data. And the organizers go to some lengths to 
mimic credible scientific conferences, calling the gathering "Restoring the 
Scientific Method" and even choosing a name, the International Conference on 
Climate Change, that produces an organizational acronym, ICCC, just one letter 
off from that of the world's leading authority on climate change, the United 
Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a collaboration of 
thousands of scientists and 195 governments. But the various contrarian theses 
presented at the Heartland conference — tree rings, sunspots, the Medieval Warm 
Period — are old news and were thoroughly debunked long ago. And most of the 
speakers are not even scientists but rather hobbyists: engineers, economists, and 
lawyers, mixed in with a weatherman, an astronaut, and a "space architect" — all 
convinced they have outsmarted 97 percent of the world's climate scientists with 
their back-of-the-envelope calculations. 

Australian geologist Bob Carter questions whether warming is happening at all, 
while astrophysicist Willie Soon acknowledges some warming has occurred, but 
says it has nothing to do with greenhouse emissions and is instead the result of 
natural fluctuations in the activity of the sun. Cato's Patrick Michaels contradicts 
them both by conceding that CO2 is indeed increasing temperatures, but insists the 
impacts are so minor we should "do nothing" about it. Disagreement is the 
lifeblood of any intellectual gathering, but at the Heartland conference, this wildly 
contradictory material sparks absolutely no debate among the deniers — no one 
attempts to defend one position over another, or to sort out who is actually correct. 

Indeed as the temperature graphs are presented, several members of the mostly 


elderly audience seem to doze off. 

The entire room comes to life, however, when the rock stars of the movement 
take the stage — not the C-team scientists but the A-team ideological warriors like 
Morano and Horner. This is the true purpose of the gathering: providing a forum 
for die-hard denialists to collect the rhetorical cudgels with which they will attempt 
to club environmentalists and climate scientists in the weeks and months to come. 
The talking points tested here will jam the comment sections beneath every article 
and YouTube video that contains the phrase "climate change" or "global 
warming." They will also fly from the mouths of hundreds of right-wing 
commentators and politicians — from Republican presidential hopefuls all the way 
down to county commissioners like Richard Rothschild. In an interview outside 
the sessions, Joseph Bast, president of the Heartland Institute, takes credit for 


"thousands of articles and op-eds and speeches ... that were informed by or 
motivated by somebody attending one of these conferences."^ 

More impressive, though left unspoken, are all the news stories that were never 
published and never aired. The years leading up to the gathering had seen a 
precipitous collapse of media coverage of climate change, despite a rise in extreme 
weather: in 2007, the three major U.S. networks— CBS, NBC, and ABC— ran 147 
stories on climate change; in 2011 the networks ran just fourteen stories on the 
subject. That too is the denier strategy at work, because the goal was never just to 
spread doubt but also to spread fear — to send a clear message that saying anything 
at all about climate change was a surefire way to find your inbox and comment 
threads jammed with a toxic strain of vitriol. 11 

The Heartland Institute, a Chicago-based think tank devoted to "promoting free- 
market solutions," has been holding these confabs since 2008, sometimes twice a 
year. And at the time of the gathering, the strategy appeared to be working. In his 
address, Morano — whose claim to fame is having broken the Swift Boat Veterans 
for Truth story that helped sink John Kerry's 2004 presidential bid — led the 
audience through a series of victory laps. Climate legislation in the U.S. Senate: 
dead! The U.N. summit on climate change in Copenhagen: failure! The climate 
movement: suicidal! He even projected on a screen a couple of quotes from climate 
activists beating up on themselves (as progressives do so well) and exhorted the 


audience to "celebrate!" 
The only things missing were balloons and confetti descending from the rafters. 

When public opinion on the big social and political issues changes, the trends tend 
to be relatively gradual. Abrupt shifts, when they come, are usually precipitated by 
dramatic events. Which is why pollsters were so surprised by what had happened 
to perceptions about climate change in just four years. A 2007 Harris poll found 
that 71 percent of Americans believed that the continued burning of fossil fuels 
would alter the climate. By 2009 the figure had dropped to 51 percent. In June 
201 1 the number was down to 44 percent — well under half the population. Similar 
trends have been tracked in the U.K. and Australia. Scott Keeter, director of survey 
research at the Pew Research Center for People & the Press, described the 
statistics in the United States as "among the largest shifts over a short period of 


time seen in recent public opinion history." 

The overall belief in climate change has rebounded somewhat since its 2010-1 1 
low in the United States. (Some have hypothesized that experience with extreme 


weather events could be contributing, though "the evidence is at best very sketchy 
at this point," says Riley Dunlap, a sociologist at Oklahoma State University who 
specializes in the politics of climate change.) But what remains striking is that on 


the right-wing side of the political spectrum, the numbers are still way down. 

It seems hard to believe today, but as recently as 2008, tackling climate change 
still had a veneer of bipartisan support, even in the United States. That year, 
Republican stalwart Newt Gingrich did a TV spot with Democratic 
congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, then Speaker of the House, in which they pledged 
to join forces and fight climate change together. And in 2007, Rupert Murdoch — 
whose Fox News channel relentlessly amplifies the climate change denial 
movement — launched an incentive program at Fox to encourage employees to buy 
hybrid cars (Murdoch announced he had purchased one himself). 

Those days of bipartisanship are decidedly over. Today, more than 75 percent 
of self-identified Democrats and liberals believe humans are changing the 
climate — a level that, despite yearly fluctuations, has risen only slightly since 
2001. In sharp contrast, Republicans have overwhelmingly chosen to reject the 
scientific consensus. In some regions, only about 20 percent of self-identified 
Republicans accept the science. This political rift can also be found in Canada. 
According to an October 2013 poll conducted by Environics, only 41 percent of 
respondents who identify with the ruling Conservative Party believe that climate 
change is real and human-caused, while 76 percent of supporters of the left-leaning 
New Democratic Party and 69 percent of supporters of the centrist Liberal Party 
believe it is real. And the same phenomenon has once again been documented in 
Australia and the U.K., as well as Western Europe. 

Ever since this political divide opened up over climate change, a great deal of 
social science research has been devoted to pinpointing precisely how and why 
political beliefs are shaping attitudes toward global warming. According to Yale's 
Cultural Cognition Project, for example, one's "cultural worldview" — that would 
be political leanings or ideological outlook to the rest of us — explains "individuals' 
beliefs about global warming more powerfully than any other individual 
characteristic." More powerfully, that is, than age, ethnicity, education, or party 

The Yale researchers explain that people with strong "egalitarian" and 
"communitarian" worldviews (marked by an inclination toward collective action 
and social justice, concern about inequality, and suspicion of corporate power) 
overwhelmingly accept the scientific consensus on climate change. Conversely, 
those with strong "hierarchical" and "individualistic" worldviews (marked by 


opposition to government assistance for the poor and minorities, strong support for 
industry, and a belief that we all pretty much get what we deserve) overwhelmingly 


reject the scientific consensus. The evidence is striking. Among the segment of 
the U.S. population that displays the strongest "hierarchical" views, only 11 
percent rate climate change as a "high risk," compared with 69 percent of the 

1 8 

segment displaying the strongest "egalitarian" views. 

Yale law professor Dan Kahan, the lead author on this study, attributes the tight 
correlation between "worldview" and acceptance of climate science to "cultural 
cognition," the process by which all of us — regardless of political leanings — filter 
new information in ways that will protect our "preferred vision of the good 
society." If new information seems to confirm that vision, we welcome it and 
integrate it easily. If it poses a threat to our belief system, then our brain 
immediately gets to work producing intellectual antibodies designed to repel the 
unwelcome invasion.^ 

As Kahan explained in Nature, "People find it disconcerting to believe that 
behavior that they find noble is nevertheless detrimental to society, and behavior 
that they find base is beneficial to it. Because accepting such a claim could drive a 
wedge between them and their peers, they have a strong emotional predisposition 
to reject it." In other words, it is always easier to deny reality than to allow our 
worldview to be shattered, a fact that was as true of die-hard Stalinists at the height 
of the purges as it is of libertarian climate change deniers today. Furthermore, 
leftists are equally capable of denying inconvenient scientific evidence. If 
conservatives are inherent system justifiers, and therefore bridle before facts that 
call the dominant economic system into question, then most leftists are inherent 
system questioners, and therefore prone to skepticism about facts that come from 
corporations and government. This can lapse into the kind of fact resistance we see 
among those who are convinced that multinational drug companies have covered 
up the link between childhood vaccines and autism. No matter what evidence is 
marshaled to disprove their theories, it doesn't matter to these crusaders — it's just 
the system covering up for itself. 

This kind of defensive reasoning helps explain the rise of emotional intensity 
that surrounds the climate issue today. As recently as 2007, climate change was 
something most everyone acknowledged was happening — they just didn't seem to 
care very much. (When Americans are asked to rank their political concerns in 


order of priority, climate change still consistently comes in last.) 

But today there is a significant cohort of voters in many countries who care 
passionately, even obsessively, about climate change. What they care about, 


however, is exposing it as a "hoax" being perpetrated by liberals to force them to 
change their light bulbs, live in Soviet- style tenements, and surrender their SUVs. 
For these right-wingers, opposition to climate change has become as central to 
their belief system as low taxes, gun ownership, and opposition to abortion. Which 
is why some climate scientists report receiving the kind of harassment that used to 
be reserved for doctors who perform abortions. In the Bay Area of California, local 
Tea Party activists have disrupted municipal meetings when minor sustainability 
strategies are being discussed, claiming they are part of a U.N.-sponsored plot to 
usher in world government. As Heather Gass of the East Bay Tea Party put it in an 
open letter after one such gathering: "One day (in 2035) you will wake up in 
subsidized government housing, eating government subsidized food, your kids will 
be whisked off by government buses to indoctrination training centers while you 
are working at your government assigned job on the bottom floor of your urban 
transit center village because you have no car and who knows where your aging 
parents will be but by then it will be too late! WAKE UP! ! ! I" 22 

Clearly there is something about climate change that has some people feeling 
very threatened indeed. 

Unthinkable Truths 

Walking past the lineup of tables set up by the Heartland conference's sponsors, 
it's not terribly hard to see what's going on. The Heritage Foundation is hawking 
reports, as are the Cato Institute and the Ayn Rand Institute. The climate change 
denial movement — far from an organic convergence of "skeptical" scientists — is 
entirely a creature of the ideological network on display here, the very one that 
deserves the bulk of the credit for redrawing the global ideological map over the 
last four decades. A 2013 study by Riley Dunlap and political scientist Peter 
Jacques found that a striking 72 percent of climate denial books, mostly published 
since the 1990s, were linked to right-wing think tanks, a figure that rises to 87 


percent if self-published books (increasingly common) are excluded. 

Many of these institutions were created in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when 
U.S. business elites feared that public opinion was turning dangerously against 
capitalism and toward, if not socialism, then an aggressive Keynesianism. In 
response, they launched a counterrevolution, a richly funded intellectual 
movement that argued that greed and the limitless pursuit of profit were nothing 
to apologize for and offered the greatest hope for human emancipation that the 


world had ever known. Under this liberationist banner, they fought for such 
policies as tax cuts, free trade deals, for the auctioning off of core state assets from 
phones to energy to water — the package known in most of the world as 

At the end of the 1980s, after a decade of Margaret Thatcher at the helm in the 
U.K. and Ronald Reagan in the United States, and with communism collapsing, 
these ideological warriors were ready to declare victory: history was officially over 
and there was, in Thatcher's often repeated words, "no alternative" to their market 
fundamentalism. Filled with confidence, the next task was to systematically lock 
in the corporate liberation project in every country that had previously held out, 
which was usually best accomplished in the midst of political turmoil and large- 
scale economic crises, and further entrenched through free trade agreements and 
membership in the World Trade Organization. 

It had all been going so well. The project had even managed to survive, more or 
less, the 2008 financial collapse directly caused by a banking sector that had been 
liberated of so much burdensome regulation and oversight. But to those gathered 
here at the Heartland conference, climate change is a threat of a different sort. It 
isn't about the political preferences of Republicans versus Democrats; it's about 
the physical boundaries of the atmosphere and ocean. If the dire projections 
coming out of the IPCC are left unchallenged, and business as usual is indeed 
driving us straight toward civilization-threatening tipping points, then the 
implications are obvious: the ideological crusade incubated in think tanks like 
Heartland, Cato, and Heritage will have to come to a screeching halt. Nor have the 
various attempts to soft-pedal climate action as compatible with market logic 
(carbon trading, carbon offsets, monetizing nature's "services") fooled these true 
believers one bit. They know very well that ours is a global economy created by, 
and fully reliant upon, the burning of fossil fuels and that a dependency that 
foundational cannot be changed with a few gentle market mechanisms. It requires 
heavy-duty interventions: sweeping bans on polluting activities, deep subsidies for 
green alternatives, pricey penalties for violations, new taxes, new public works 
programs, reversals of privatizations — the list of ideological outrages goes on and 
on. Everything, in short, that these think tanks — which have always been public 
proxies for far more powerful corporate interests — have been busily attacking for 

And there is also the matter of "global equity" that keeps coming up in the 
climate negotiations. The equity debate is based on the simple scientific fact that 
global warming is caused by the accumulation of greenhouse gases in the 


atmosphere over two centuries. That means that the countries that got a large head 
start on industrialization have done a great deal more emitting than most others. 
And yet many of the countries that have emitted least are getting hit by the impacts 
of climate change first and worst (the result of geographical bad luck as well as the 
particular vulnerabilities created by poverty). To address this structural inequity 
sufficiently to persuade fast- growing countries like China and India not to 
destabilize the global climate system, earlier emitters, like North America and 
Europe, will have to take a greater share of the burden at first. And there will 
obviously need to be substantial transfers of resources and technology to help 
battle poverty using low carbon tools. This is what Bolivia's climate negotiator 
Angelica Navarro Llanos meant when she called for a Marshall Plan for the Earth. 
And it is this sort of wealth redistribution that represents the direst of thought 
crimes at a place like the Heartland Institute. 

Even climate action at home looks suspiciously like socialism to them; all the 
calls for high-density affordable housing and brand-new public transit are 
obviously just ways to give backdoor subsidies to the undeserving poor. Never 
mind what this war on carbon means to the very premise of global free trade, with 
its insistence that geographical distance is a mere fiction to be collapsed by 
Walmart's diesel trucks and Maersk's container ships. 

More fundamentally than any of this, though, is their deep fear that if the free 
market system really has set in motion physical and chemical processes that, if 
allowed to continue unchecked, threaten large parts of humanity at an existential 
level, then their entire crusade to morally redeem capitalism has been for naught. 
With stakes like these, clearly greed is not so very good after all. And that is what 
is behind the abrupt rise in climate change denial among hardcore conservatives: 
they have come to understand that as soon as they admit that climate change is 
real, they will lose the central ideological battle of our time — whether we need to 
plan and manage our societies to reflect our goals and values, or whether that task 
can be left to the magic of the market. 

Imagine, for a moment, how all of this looks to a guy like Heartland president 
Joseph Bast, a genial bearded fellow who studied economics at the University of 
Chicago and who told me in a sit-down interview that his personal calling is 


"freeing people from the tyranny of other people." To Bast, climate action looks 
like the end of the world. It's not, or at least it doesn't have to be, but, for all intents 
and purposes, robust, science-based emission reduction is the end of his world. 
Climate change detonates the ideological scaffolding on which contemporary 
conservatism rests. A belief system that vilifies collective action and declares war 


on all corporate regulation and all things public simply cannot be reconciled with 
a problem that demands collective action on an unprecedented scale and a dramatic 
reining in of the market forces that are largely responsible for creating and 
deepening the crisis. 

And for many conservatives, particularly religious ones, the challenge goes 
deeper still, threatening not just faith in markets but core cultural narratives about 
what humans are doing here on earth. Are we masters, here to subdue and 
dominate, or are we one species among many, at the mercy of powers more 
complex and unpredictable than even our most powerful computers can model? As 
Robert Manne, a professor of politics at La Trobe University in Melbourne, puts 
it, climate science is for many conservatives "an affront to their deepest and most 
cherished basic faith: the capacity and indeed the right of 'mankind' to subdue the 
Earth and all its fruits and to establish a 'mastery' over Nature." For these 
conservatives, he notes, "such a thought is not merely mistaken. It is intolerable 
and deeply offensive. Those preaching this doctrine have to be resisted and indeed 



And denounce they do, the more personal, the better — whether it's former Vice 
President Al Gore for his mansions, or famed climate scientist James Hansen for 
his speaking fees. Then there is "Climategate," a manufactured scandal in which 
climate scientists' emails were hacked and their contents distorted by the 
Heartlanders and their allies, who claimed to find evidence of manipulated data 
(the scientists were repeatedly vindicated of wrongdoing). In 2012, the Heartland 
Institute even landed itself in hot water by running a billboard campaign that 
compared people who believe in climate change ("warmists" in denialist lingo) to 
murderous cult leader Charles Manson and Unabomber Ted Kaczynski. "I still 
believe in Global Warming. Do you?" the first ad demanded in bold red letters 
under a picture of Kaczynski. For Heartlanders, denying climate science is part of 
a war, and they act like it. 

Many deniers are quite open about the fact that their distrust of the science grew 
out of a powerful fear that if climate change is real, the political implications would 
be catastrophic. As British blogger and regular Heartland speaker James 
Delingpole has pointed out, "Modern environmentalism successfully advances 
many of the causes dear to the left: redistribution of wealth, higher taxes, greater 
government intervention, regulation." Heartland president Joseph Bast puts it even 
more bluntly. For the left, "Climate change is the perfect thing.... It's the reason 


why we should do everything [the left] wanted to do anyway."^ 


Bast, who has little of the swagger common to so many denialists, is equally 
honest about the fact he and his colleagues did not become engaged with climate 
issues because they found flaws in the scientific facts. Rather, they became 
alarmed about the economic and political implications of those facts and set out to 
disprove them. "When we look at this issue, we say, This is a recipe for massive 
increase in government," Bast told me, concluding that, "Before we take this step, 
let's take another look at the science. So conservative and libertarian groups, I 
think, stopped and said, Let's not simply accept this as an article of faith; let's 


actually do our own research." 

Nigel Lawson, Margaret Thatcher's former chancellor of the exchequer who has 
taken to declaring that "green is the new red," has followed a similar intellectual 
trajectory. Lawson takes great pride in having privatized key British assets, 
lowered taxes on the wealthy, and broken the power of large unions. But climate 
change creates, in his words, "a new license to intrude, to interfere and to regulate." 
It must, he concludes, be a conspiracy — the classic teleological reversal of cause 


and effect. 

The climate change denial movement is littered with characters who are twisting 
themselves in similar intellectual knots. There are the old-timer physicists like S. 
Fred Singer, who used to develop rocket technologies for the U.S. military and 
who hears in emissions regulation a distorted echo of the communism he fought 
during the Cold War (as documented compellingly by Naomi Oreskes and Erik 
Conway in Merchants of Doubt). In a similar vein, there is former Czech president 
Vaclav Klaus, who spoke at a Heartland climate conference while still head of 
state. For Klaus, whose career began under communist rule, climate change 
appears to have induced a full-fledged Cold War flashback. He compares attempts 
to prevent global warming to "the ambitions of communist central planners to 
control the entire society" and says, "For someone who spent most of his life in 


the 'noble' era of communism this is impossible to accept." 

And you can understand that, from their perspective, the scientific reality of 
climate change must seem spectacularly unfair. After all, the people at the 
Heartland conference thought they had won these ideological wars — if not fairly, 
then certainly squarely. Now climate science is changing everything: how can you 
win an argument against government intervention if the very habitability of the 
planet depends on intervening? In the short term, you might be able to argue that 
the economic costs of taking action are greater than allowing climate change to 
play out for a few more decades (and some neoliberal economists, using cost- 
benefit calculations and future "discounting," are busily making those arguments). 


But most people don't actually like it when their children's lives are "discounted" 
in someone else's Excel sheet, and they tend to have a moral aversion to the idea 
of allowing countries to disappear because saving them would be too expensive. 

Which is why the ideological warriors gathered at the Marriott have concluded 
that there is really only one way to beat a threat this big: by claiming that thousands 
upon thousands of scientists are lying and that climate change is an elaborate hoax. 
That the storms aren't really getting bigger, it's just our imagination. And if they 
are, it's not because of anything humans are doing — or could stop doing. They 
deny reality, in other words, because the implications of that reality are, quite 
simply, unthinkable. So here's my inconvenient truth: I think these hard-core 
ideologues understand the real significance of climate change better than most of 
the "warmists" in the political center, the ones who are still insisting that the 
response can be gradual and painless and that we don't need to go to war with 
anybody, including the fossil fuel companies. Before I go any further, let me be 
absolutely clear: as 97 percent of the world's climate scientists attest, the 
Heartlanders are completely wrong about the science. But when it comes to the 
political and economicconsequences of those scientific findings, specifically the 
kind of deep changes required not just to our energy consumption but to the 
underlying logic of our liberalized and profit- seekingeconomy, they have their 
eyes wide open. The deniers get plenty of the details wrong (no, it's not a 
communist plot; authoritarian state socialism, as we will see, was terrible for the 
environment and brutally extractivist), but when it comes to the scope and depth 
of change required to avert catastrophe, they are right on the money. 

About That Money ... 

When powerful ideologies are challenged by hard evidence from the real world, 
they rarely die off completely. Rather, they become cultlike and marginal. A few 
of the faithful always remain to tell one another that the problem wasn't with the 
ideology; it was the weakness of leaders who did not apply the rules with sufficient 
rigor. (Lord knows there is still a smattering of such grouplets on the neo-Stalinist 
far left.) By this point in history — after the 2008 collapse of Wall Street and in the 
midst of layers of ecological crises — free market fundamentalists should, by all 
rights, be exiled to a similarly irrelevant status, left to fondle their copies of Milton 
Friedman's Free to Chooseand Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged in obscurity. They are 
saved from this ignominious fate only because their ideas about corporate 


liberation, no matter how demonstrably at war with reality, remain so profitable to 
the world' s billionaires that they are kept fed and clothed in think tanks by the likes 
of Charles and David Koch, owners of the diversified dirty energy giant Koch 
Industries, and ExxonMobil. 

According to one recent study, for instance, the denial-espousing think tanks and 
other advocacy groups making up what sociologist Robert Brulle calls the "climate 
change counter-movement" are collectively pulling in more than $900 million per 
year for their work on a variety of right-wing causes, most of it in the form of "dark 


money" — funds from conservative foundations that cannot be fully traced. 

This points to the limits of theories like cultural cognition that focus exclusively 
on individual psychology. The deniers are doing more than protecting their 
personal worldviews — they are protecting powerful political and economic 
interests that have gained tremendously from the way Heartland and others have 
clouded the climate debate. The ties between the deniers and those interests are 
well known and well documented. Heartlandhas received more than $1 million 
from ExxonMobil together with foundations linked to the Koch brothers and the 
late conservative funder Richard Mellon Scaife. Just how much money the think 
tank receives from companies, foundations, and individuals linked to the fossil fuel 
industry remains unclear because Heartland does not publish the names of its 
donors, claiming the information would distract from the "merits of our positions." 
Indeed, leaked internal documents revealed that one of Heartland's largest donors 
is anonymous — a shadowy individual who has given more than $8.6 million 


specifically to support the think tank's attacks on climate science. 

Meanwhile, scientists who present at Heartland climate conferences are almost 
all so steeped in fossil fuel dollars that you can practically smell the fumes. To cite 
just two examples, the Cato Institute's Patrick Michaels, who gave the 2011 
conference keynote, once told CNN that 40 percent of his consulting company' s 
income comes from oil companies (Cato itself has received funding from 
ExxonMobil and Koch family foundations). A Greenpeace investigation into 
another conference speaker, astrophysicist Willie Soon, found that between 2002 
and 2010, 100 percent of his new research grants had come from fossil fuel 



The people paid to amplify the views of these scientists — in blogs, op-eds, and 
television appearances — are bankrolled by many of the same sources. Money from 
big oil funds the Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow, which houses Marc 
Morano's website, just as it funds the Competitive Enterprise Institute, one of 
Chris Horner's intellectual homes. A February 2013 report in The 


Guardian revealed that between 2002 and 2010, a network of anonymous U.S. 
billionaires had donated nearly $120 million to "groups casting doubt about the 
science behind climate change . . . the ready stream of cash set off a conservative 
backlash against Barack Obama's environmental agenda that wrecked any chance 


of Congress taking action on climate change." 

There is no way of knowing exactly how this money shapes the views of those 
who receive it or whether it does at all. We do know that having a significant 
economic stake in the fossil fuel economy makes one more prone to deny the 
reality of climate change, regardless of political affiliation. For example, the only 
parts of the U.S. where opinions about climate change are slightly less split along 
political lines are regions that are highly dependent on fossil fuel extraction — such 
as Appalachian coal country and the Gulf Coast. There, Republicans still 
overwhelmingly deny climate change, as they do across the country, but many of 
their Democratic neighbors do as well (in parts of Appalachia, just 49 percent of 
Democrats believe in human-created climate change, compared with 72-77 
percent in other parts of the country). Canada has the same kinds of regional splits: 
in Alberta, where incomes are soaring thanks to the tar sands, only 41 percent of 
residents told pollsters that humans are contributing to climate change. In Atlantic 
Canada, which has seen far less extravagant benefits from fossil fuel extraction, 


68 percent of respondents say that humans are warming the planet. 

A similar bias can be observed among scientists. While 97 percent of active 
climate scientists believe humans are a major cause of climate change, the numbers 
are radically different among "economic geologists" — scientists who study natural 
formations so that they can be commercially exploited by the extractive industries. 
Only 47 percent of these scientists believe in human-caused climate change. The 
bottom line is that we are all inclined to denial when the truth is too costly — 
whether emotionally, intellectually, or financially. As Upton Sinclair famously 
observed: "It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary 
depends upon his not understanding it!"~ 

Plan B: Get Rich off a Warming World 

One of the most interesting findings of the many recent studies on climate 
perceptions is the clear connection between a refusal to accept the science of 
climate change and social and economic privilege. Overwhelmingly, climate 
change deniers are not only conservative but also white and male, a group with 


higher than average incomes. And they are more likely than other adults to be 
highly confident in their views, no matter how demonstrably false. A much 
discussed paper on this topic by sociologists Aaron McCright and Riley Dunlap 
(memorably titled "Cool Dudes") found that as a group, conservative white men 
who expressed strong confidence in their understanding of global warming were 
almost six times as likely to believe climate change "will never happen" as the rest 
of the adults surveyed. McCright and Dunlap offer a simple explanation for this 
discrepancy: "Conservative white males have disproportionately occupied 
positions of power within our economic system. Given the expansive challenge 
that climate change poses to the industrial capitalist economic system, it should 
not be surprising that conservative white males' strong system-justifying attitudes 


would be triggered to deny climate change." 

But deniers' relative economic and social privilege doesn't just give them more 
to lose from deep social and economic change; it gives them reason to be more 
sanguine about the risks of climate change should their contrarian views turn out 
to be false. This occurred to me as I listened to yet another speaker at the Heartland 
conference display what can only be described as an utter absence of empathy for 
the victims of climate change. Larry Bell (the space architect) drew plenty of 
laughs when he told the crowd that a little heat isn't so bad: "I moved to Houston 
intentionally!" (Houston was, at that time, in the midst of what would turn out to 
be Texas's worst single-year drought on record.) Australian geologist Bob Carter 
offered that "the world actually does better from our human perspective in warmer 
times." And Patrick Michaels said people worried about climate change should do 
what the French did after the devastating 2003 heat wave across Europe killed 
nearly fifteen thousand people in France alone: "they discovered Walmart and air- 



I listened to these zingers as an estimated thirteen million people in the Horn of 
Africa faced starvation on parched land. What makes this callousness among 
deniers possible is their firm belief that if they're wrong about climate science, a 
few degrees of warming isn't something wealthy people in industrialized countries 
have to worry much about. ("When it rains, we find shelter. When it's hot, we 
find shade," Texas congressman Joe Barton explained at an energy and 


environment subcommittee hearing.) 

As for everyone else, well, they should stop looking for handouts and get busy 
making money. (Never mind that the World Bank warned in a 2012 report that for 
poor countries, the increased cost of storms, droughts, and flooding is already so 
high that it "threatens to roll back decades of sustainable development.") When I 


asked Patrick Michaels whether rich countries have a responsibility to help poor 
ones pay for costly adaptations to a warmer climate, he scoffed: There is no reason 
to give resources to countries "because, for some reason, their political system is 


incapable of adapting." The real solution, he claimed, was more free trade. 

Michaels surely knows that free trade is hardly going to help islanders whose 
countries are disappearing, just as he is doubtlessly aware that most people on the 
planet who are hit hardest by heat and drought can't solve their problems by putting 
a new AC system on their credit cards. And this is where the intersection between 
extreme ideology and climate denial gets truly dangerous. It' s not simply that these 
"cool dudes" deny climate science because it threatens to upend their dominance- 
based worldview. It is that their dominance-based worldview provides them with 
the intellectual tools to write off huge swaths of humanity, and indeed, to 
rationalize profiting from the meltdown. 

Recognizing the threat posed by this empathy-exterminating mind- set — which 
the cultural theorists describe as "hierarchical" and "individualistic" — is a matter 
of great urgency because climate change will test our moral character like little 
before. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, in its bid to prevent the Environmental 
Protection Agency from regulating carbon emissions, argued in a petition that in 
the event of global warming, "populations can acclimatize to warmer climates via 


a range of behavioral, physiological, and technological adaptations." 

It is these adaptations that worry me most of all. Unless our culture goes through 
some sort of fundamental shift in its governing values, how do we honestly think 
we will "adapt" to the people made homeless and jobless by increasingly intense 
and frequent natural disasters? How will we treat the climate refugees who arrive 
on our shores in leaky boats? How will we cope as freshwater and food become 
ever more scarce? 

We know the answers because the process is already under way. The corporate 
quest for natural resources will become more rapacious, more violent. Arable land 
in Africa will continue to be seized to provide food and fuel to wealthier nations, 
unleashing a new stage of neocolonial plunder layered on top of the most plundered 
places on earth (as journalist Christian Parenti documents so well in Tropic of 
Chaos). When heat stress and vicious storms wipe out small farms and fishing 
villages, the land will be handed over to large developers for mega-ports, luxury 
resorts, and industrial farms. Once self-sufficient rural residents will lose their 
lands and be urged to move into increasingly crowded urban slums — for their own 
protection, they will be told. Drought and famine will continue to be used as 


pretexts to push genetically modified seeds, driving farmers further into debt. 


In the wealthier nations, we will protect our major cities with costly seawalls 
and storm barriers while leaving vast areas of coastline that are inhabited by poor 
and Indigenous people to the ravages of storms and rising seas. We may well do 
the same on the planetary scale, deploying techno-fixes to lower global 
temperatures that will pose far greater risks to those living in the tropics than in 
the Global North (more on this later). And rather than recognizing that we owe a 
debt to migrants forced to flee their lands as a result of our actions (and inactions), 
our governments will build ever more high-tech fortresses and adopt even more 
draconian anti-immigration laws. And, in the name of "national security," we will 
intervene in foreign conflicts over water, oil, and arable land, or start those 
conflicts ourselves. In short our culture will do what it is already doing, only with 
more brutality and barbarism, because that is what our system is built to do. 

In recent years, quite a number of major multinational corporations have begun 
to speak openly about how climate change might impact their businesses, and 
insurance companies closely track and discuss the increased frequency of major 
disasters. The CEO of Swiss Re Americas admitted, for instance, that "What keeps 
us up at night is climate change," while companies like Starbucks and Chipotle 
have raised the alarm about how extreme weather may impact the availability of 
key ingredients. In June 2014, the Risky Business project, led by billionaire and 
former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, as well as former U.S. treasury 
secretary Henry Paulson and hedge fund founder and environmental philanthropist 
Tom Steyer, warned that climate change would cost the U.S. economy billions of 
dollars each year as a result of rising sea levels alone, and that the corporate world 


must take such climate costs seriously. 

This kind of talk is often equated with support for strong action to prevent 
warming. It shouldn't be. Just because companies are willing to acknowledge the 
probable effects of climate change does not mean they support the kinds of 
aggressive measures that would significantly reduce those risks by keeping 
warming below 2 degrees. In the U.S., for instance, the insurance lobby has been, 
by far, the corporate sector most vocal about the mounting impacts, with the largest 
companies employing teams of climate scientists to help them prepare for the 
disasters to come. And yet the industry hasn't done much to push more aggressive 
climate policy — on the contrary, many companies and trade groups have provided 
substantial funding to the think tanks that created the climate change denial 


movement. For some time, this seemingly contradictory dynamic played out 
within different divisions of the Heartland Institute itself. The world's premier 
climate denial institution houses something called the Center on Finance, 


Insurance, and Real Estate. Up until May 2012, it was pretty much a mouthpiece 
for the insurance industry, headed by conservative Washington insider Eli Lehrer. 
What made Lehrer different from his Heartland colleagues, however, is that he is 
willing to state matter-of-factly, "Climate change is obviously real and obviously 
caused to a significant extent by people. I don't really think there's room for 


serious debate on either of those points." 

So even as his Heartland colleagues were organizing global conferences 
designed specifically to manufacture the illusion of a serious scientific debate, 
Lehrer' s division was working with the insurance lobby to protect their bottom 
lines in a future of climate chaos. According to Lehrer, "In general there was no 
enormous conflict, day-to-day" between his work and that of his climate-change- 


denying colleagues. That's because what many of the insurance companies 
wanted from Heartland's advocacy was not action to prevent climate chaos but 
rather policies that would safeguard or even increase their profits no matter the 
weather. That means pushing government out of the subsidized insurance business, 
giving companies greater freedom to raise rates and deductibles and to drop 
customers in high-risk areas, as well as other "free market" measures. 

Eventually, Lehrer split away from the Heartland Institute after the think tank 
launched its billboard comparing people who believe in climate change to mass 
murderers. Since climate change believers include the insurance companies that 
were generously funding the Heartland Institute, that stunt didn't sit at all well. 
Still, in an interview, Eli Lehrer was quick to stress that the differences were over 
public relations, not policy. "The public policies that Heartland supported are 


generally ones I still favor," he said. In truth the work was more or less 
compatible. Heartland's denier division did its best to cast so much doubt on the 
science that it helped to paralyze all serious attempts to regulate greenhouse 
emissions, while the insurance arm pushed policies that would allow corporations 
to stay profitable regardless of the real-world results of those emissions. 

And this points to what really lies behind the casual attitude about climate 
change, whether it is being expressed as disaster denialism or disaster capitalism. 
Those involved feel free to engage in these high-stakes gambles because they 
believe that they and theirs will be protected from the ravages in question, at least 
for another generation or so. 

On a large scale, many regional climate models do predict that wealthy 
countries — most of which are located at higher latitudes — may experience some 
economic benefits from a slightly warmer climate, from longer growing seasons 
to access to shorter trade routes through the melting Arctic ice. At the same time, 


the wealthy in these regions are already finding ever more elaborate ways to protect 
themselves from the coming weather extremes. Sparked by events like Superstorm 
Sandy, new luxury real estate developments are marketing their gold-plated private 
disaster infrastructure to would-be residents — everything from emergency lighting 
to natural-gas-powered pumps and generators to thirteen-foot floodgates and 
watertight rooms sealed "submarine-style," in the case of a new Manhattan 
condominium. As Stephen G. Kliegerman, the executive director of development 
marketing for Halstead Property, told The New York Times: "I think buyers would 
happily pay to be relatively reassured they wouldn't be terribly inconvenienced in 


case of a natural disaster." 

Many large corporations, meanwhile, have their own backup generators to keep 
their lights on through mass blackouts (as Goldman Sachs did during Sandy, 
despite the fact that its power never actually went out); the capacity to fortify 
themselves with their own sandbags (which Goldman also did ahead of Sandy); 
and their own special teams of meteorologists (FedEx). Insurance companies in 
the United States have even begun dispatching teams of private firefighters to their 
high-end customers when their mansions in California and Colorado are threatened 


by wildfires, a "concierge" service pioneered by AIG. 

Meanwhile, the public sector continues to crumble, thanks in large part to the 
hard work of the warriors here at the Heartland conference. These, after all, are the 
fervent dismantlers of the state, whose ideology has eroded so many parts of the 
public sphere, including disaster preparedness. These are the voices that have been 
happy to pass on the federal budget crisis to the states and municipalities, which 
in turn are coping with it by not repairing bridges or replacing fire trucks. The 
"freedom" agenda that they are desperately trying to protect from scientific 
evidence is one of the reasons that societies will be distinctly less prepared for 
disasters when they come. 

For a long time, environmentalists spoke of climate change as a great equalizer, 
the one issue that affected everyone, rich or poor. It was supposed to bring us 
together. Yet all signs are that it is doing precisely the opposite, stratifying us 
further into a society of haves and have-nots, divided between those whose wealth 
offers them a not insignificant measure of protection from ferocious weather, at 
least for now, and those left to the mercy of increasingly dysfunctional states. 


The Meaner Side of Denial 

As the effects of climate change become impossible to ignore, the crueler side of 
the denial project — now lurking as subtext — will become explicit. It has already 
begun. At the end of August 201 1, with large parts of the world still suffering under 
record high temperatures, the conservative blogger Jim Geraghty published a piece 
in The Philadelphia Inquirer arguing that climate change "will help the U.S. 
economy in several ways and enhance, not diminish, the United States' 
geopolitical power." He explained that since climate change will be hardest on 
developing countries, "many potentially threatening states will find themselves in 
much more dire circumstances." And this, he stressed, was a good thing: "Rather 
than our doom, climate change could be the centerpiece of ensuring a second 
consecutive American Century." Got that? Since people who scare Americans are 
unlucky enough to live in poor, hot places, climate change will cook them, leaving 


the United States to rise like a phoenix from the flames of global warming. 

Expect more of this monstrousness. As the world warms, the ideology so 
threatened by climate science — the one that tells us it's everyone for themselves, 
that victims deserve their fate, that we can master nature — will take us to a very 
cold place indeed. And it will only get colder, as theories of racial superiority, 
barely under the surface in parts of the denial movement, make a raging 
comeback. 1 ^ 1 In the grossly unequal world this ideology has done so much to 
intensify and lock in, these theories are not optional: they are necessary to justify 
the hardening of hearts to the largely blameless victims of climate change in the 
Global South and to the predominantly African American cities like New Orleans 
that are most vulnerable in the Global North. 

In a 2007 report on the security implications of climate change, copublished by 
the Center for Strategic and International Studies, former CIA director R. James 
Woolsey predicted that on a much warmer planet "altruism and generosity would 


likely be blunted." We can already see that emotional blunting on display from 
Arizona to Italy. Already, climate change is changing us, coarsening us. Each 
massive disaster seems to inspire less horror, fewer telethons. Media commentators 
speak of "compassion fatigue," as if empathy, and not fossil fuels, was the finite 

As if to prove the point, after Hurricane Sandy devastated large parts of New 
York and New Jersey, the Koch-backed organization Americans for Prosperity 
(AFP) launched a campaign to block the federal aid package going to these states. 
"We need to suck it up and be responsible for taking care of ourselves," said Steve 


Lonegan, then director of AFP's New Jersey chapter.^ 


And then there is Britain's Daily Mail newspaper. In the midst of the 
extraordinary 2014 winter floods, the tabloid ran a front-page headline asking its 
readers to sign a petition calling on the government "to divert some of the £11 
billion a year spent on overseas aid to ease the suffering of British flood 


victims." Within days, more than 200,000 people had signed onto the demand to 
cut foreign aid in favor of local disaster relief. Of course Britain — the nation that 
invented the coal-fired steam engine — has been emitting industrial levels of carbon 
for longer than any nation on earth and therefore bears a particularly great 
responsibility to increase, as opposed to claw back, foreign aid. But never mind 
that. Screw the poor. Suck it up. Everyone for themselves. 

Unless we radically change course, these are the values that will rule our stormy 
future, even more than they already rule our present. 

Coddling Conservatives 

Some climate activists have attempted to sway deniers away from their hardened 
positions, arguing that delaying climate action will only make the government 
interventions required more extreme. The popular climate blogger Joe Romm, for 
instance, writes that "if you hate government intrusion into people's lives, you'd 
better stop catastrophic global warming, because nothing drives a country more 
towards activist government than scarcity and deprivation.... Only Big 
Government — which conservatives say they don't want — can relocate millions of 
citizens, build massive levees, ration crucial resources like water and arable land, 
mandate harsh and rapid reductions in certain kinds of energy — all of which will 
be inevitable if we don't act now."~ 

It's true that catastrophic climate change would inflate the role of government 
to levels that would likely disturb most thinking people, whether left or right. And 
there are legitimate fears too of what some call "green fascism" — an 
environmental crisis so severe that it becomes the pretext for authoritarian forces 
to seize control in the name of restoring some kind of climate order. But it' s also 
the case that there is no way to get cuts in emissions steep or rapid enough to avoid 
those catastrophic scenarios without levels of government intervention that will 
never be acceptable to right-wing ideologues. 

This was not always so. If governments, including in the U.S., had started cutting 
emissions back when the scientific consensus first solidified, the measures for 
avoiding catastrophic warming would not have been nearly so jarring to the 


reigning economic model. For instance, the first major international gathering to 
set specific targets for emission reductions was the World Conference on the 
Changing Atmosphere, held in Toronto in 1988, with more than three hundred 
scientists and policymakers from forty-six countries represented. The conference, 
which set the groundwork for the Rio Earth Summit, was a breakthrough, 
recommending that governments cut emissions by 20 percent below 1988 levels 
by 2005. "If we choose to take on this challenge," remarked one scientist in 
attendance, "it appears that we can slow the rate of change substantially, giving us 
time to develop mechanisms so that the cost to society and the damage to 
ecosystems can be minimized. We could alternatively close our eyes, hope for the 
best, and pay the cost when the bill comes due." 

If we had heeded this advice and got serious about meeting that goal 
immediately after the 1992 signing of the U.N. climate convention in Rio, the 
world would have needed to reduce its carbon emissions by about 2 percent per 


year until 2005. At that rate, wealthy countries could have much more 
comfortably started rolling out the technologies to replace fossil fuels, cutting 
carbon at home while helping to launch an ambitious green transition throughout 
the world. Since this was before the globalization juggernaut took hold, it would 
have created an opportunity for China and India and other fast-growing economies 
to battle poverty on low-carbon pathways. (Which was the stated goal of 
"sustainable development" as championed in Rio.) 

Indeed this vision could have been built into the global trade architecture that 
would rise up in the early to mid-1990s. If we had continued to reduce our 
emissions at that pace we would have been on track for a completely de-carbonized 
global economy by mid-century. 

But we didn't do any of those things. And as the famed climate scientist Michael 
Mann, director of the Penn State Earth System Science Center, puts it, "There's a 
huge procrastination penalty when it comes to emitting carbon into the 
atmosphere": the longer we wait, the more it builds up, the more dramatically we 
must change to reduce the risks of catastrophic warming. Kevin Anderson, deputy 
director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, further explains: 
"Perhaps at the time of the 1992 Earth Summit, or even at the turn of the 
millennium, 2°C levels of mitigation could have been achieved through significant 
evolutionary changes within the political and economic hegemony. But climate 
change is a cumulative issue! Now, in 2013, we in high-emitting (post)industrial 
nations face a very different prospect. Our ongoing and collective carbon 
profligacy has squandered any opportunity for the 'evolutionary change' afforded 


by our earlier (and larger) 2°C carbon budget. Today, after two decades of bluff 
and lies, the remaining 2°C budget demands revolutionary change to the political 


and economic hegemony." 

Put a little more simply: for more than two decades, we kicked the can down the 
road. During that time, we also expanded the road from a two-lane carbon- spewing 
highway to a six-lane superhighway. That feat was accomplished in large part 
thanks to the radical and aggressive vision that called for the creation of a single 
global economy based on the rules of free market fundamentalism, the very rules 
incubated in the right-wing think tanks now at the forefront of climate change 
denial. There is a certain irony at work: it is the success of their own revolution 
that makes revolutionary levels of transformation to the market system now our 
best hope of avoiding climate chaos. 

Some are advancing a different strategy to bring right-wingers back into the 
climate fold. Rather than trying to scare them with scenarios of interventionist 
governments if we procrastinate further, this camp argues that we need approaches 
to emission reduction that are less offensive to conservative values. 

Yale's Dan Kahan points out that while those who poll as highly "hierarchical" 
and "individualist" bridle at any mention of regulation, they tend to like big, 
centralized technologies that do not challenge their belief that humans can 
dominate nature. In one of his studies, Kahan and his colleagues polled subjects 
on their views about climate change after showing some of them fake news stories. 
Some of the subjects were given a story about how global warming could be solved 
through "anti-pollution" measures. Others were given a story that held up nuclear 
power as the solution. Some were shown no story at all. The scientific facts about 
global warming were identical in all news stories. The researchers discovered that 
hard-core conservatives who received the nuclear solution story were more open 
to the scientific facts proving that humans are changing the climate. However, 
those who received the story about fighting pollution "were even more skeptical 
about these facts than were hierarchs and individualists in a control group that 
received no newspaper story."~ 

It's not hard to figure out why. Nuclear is a heavy industrial technology, based 
on extraction, run in a corporatist manner, with long ties to the military-industrial 
complex. And as renowned psychiatrist and author Robert Jay Lifton has noted, 
no technology does more to confirm the notion that man has tamed nature than the 
ability to split the atom. 


Based on this research, Kahan and others argue, environmentalists should sell 
climate action by playing up concerns about national security and emphasizing 
responses such as nuclear power and "geoengineering" — global-scale 
technological interventions that would attempt to reverse rapid warming by, for 
instance, blocking a portion of the sun's rays, or by "fertilizing" the oceans so that 
they trap more carbon, among other untested, extraordinarily high-risk schemes. 
Kahan reasons that since climate change is perceived by many on the right as a 
gateway to dreaded anti-industry policies, the solution is "to remove what makes 
it threatening." In a similar vein, Irina Feygina and John T. Jost, who have 
conducted parallel research at NYU, advise policymakers to package 
environmental action as being about protecting "our way of life" and a form of 
patriotism, something they revealingly call "system-sanctioned change." 

This kind of advice has been enormously influential. For instance, the 
Breakthrough Institute — a think tank that specialized in attacking grassroots 
environmentalism for its supposed lack of "modernity" — is forever charting this 
self-styled middle path, pushing nuclear power, fracked natural gas, and 
genetically modified crops as climate solutions, while attacking renewable energy 
programs. And as we will see later on, some greens are even warming up to 


geoengineering. Moreover, in the name of reaching across the aisle, green groups 
are constantly "refraining" climate action so that it is about pretty much anything 
other than preventing catastrophic warming to protect life on earth. Instead climate 
action is about all the things conservatives are supposed to care about more than 
that, from cutting off revenues to Arab states to reasserting American economic 
dominance over China. 

The first problem with this strategy is that it doesn't work: this has been the core 
messaging for many large U.S. green groups for five years ("Forget about climate 
change," counsels Jonathan Foley, director of the Institute on the Environment at 


the University of Minnesota. "Do you love America?" ) And as we have seen, 
conservative opposition to climate action has only hardened in this period. 

The far more troubling problem with this approach is that rather than challenging 
the warped values fueling both disaster denialism and disaster capitalism, it 
actively reinforces those values. Nuclear power and geoengineering are not 
solutions to the ecological crisis; they are a doubling down on exactly the kind of 
reckless, short-term thinking that got us into this mess. Just as we spewed 
greenhouse gases into the atmosphere thinking that tomorrow would never come, 
both of these hugely high-risk technologies would create even more dangerous 
forms of waste, and neither has a discernible exit strategy (subjects that I will be 


exploring in greater depth later on). Hyper-patriotism, similarly, is an active barrier 
to coming up with any kind of global climate agreement, since it further pits 
countries against one another rather than encouraging them to cooperate. As for 
pitching climate action as a way to protect America's high-consumerist "way of 
life" — that is either dishonest or delusional because a way of life based on the 
promise of infinite growth cannot be protected, least of all exported to every corner 
of the globe. 

The Battle of Worldviews 

I am well aware that all of this raises the question of whether I am doing the same 
thing as the deniers — rejecting possible solutions because they threaten my 
ideological worldview. As I outlined earlier, I have long been greatly concerned 
about the science of global warming — but I was propelled into a deeper 
engagement with it partly because I realized it could be a catalyst for forms of 
social and economic justice in which I already believed. 

But there are a few important differences to note. First, I am not asking anyone 
to take my word on the science; I think that all of us should take the word of 97 
percent of climate scientists and their countless peer-reviewed articles, as well as 
every national academy of science in the world, not to mention establishment 
institutions like the World Bank and the International Energy Agency, all of which 
are telling us we are headed toward catastrophic levels of warming. Nor am I 
suggesting that the kind of equity-based responses to climate change that I favor 
are inevitable results of the science. 

What I am saying is that the science forces us to choose how we want to respond. 
If we stay on the road we are on, we will get the big corporate, big military, big 
engineering responses to climate change — the world of a tiny group of big 
corporate winners and armies of locked-out losers that we have imagined in 
virtually every fictional account of our dystopic future, fromMad Max to The 
Children of Men to The Hunger Games to Elysium.Or we can choose to heed 
climate change's planetary wake-up call and change course, steer away not just 
from the emissions cliff but from the logic that brought us careening to that 
precipice. Because what the "moderates" constantly trying to reframe climate 
action as something more palatable are really asking is: How can we create change 
so that the people responsible for the crisis do not feel threatened by the solutions? 
How, they ask, do you reassure members of a panicked, megalomaniacal elite that 


they are still masters of the universe, despite the overwhelming evidence to the 
contrary? The answer is: you don't. You make sure you have enough people on 
your side to change the balance of power and take on those responsible, knowing 
that true populist movements always draw from both the left and the right. And 
rather than twisting yourself in knots trying to appease a lethal worldview, you set 
out to deliberately strengthen those values ("egalitarian" and "communitarian" as 
the cultural cognition studies cited here describe them) that are currently being 
vindicated, rather than refuted, by the laws of nature. 

Culture, after all, is fluid. It has changed many times before and can change 
again. The delegates at the Heartland conference understand this, which is why 
they are so determined to suppress the mountain of evidence proving that their 
worldview is a threat to life on earth. The task for the rest of us is to believe, based 
on that same evidence, that a very different worldview can be our salvation. 

The Heartlanders understand that culture can shift quickly because they are part 
of a movement that did just that. "Economics are the method," Margaret Thatcher 
said, "the object is to change the heart and soul." It was a mission largely 
accomplished. To cite just one example, in 1966, a survey of U.S. college freshmen 
found that only about 44 percent of them said that making a lot of money was "very 


important" or "essential." By 2013, the figure had jumped to 82 percent. 

It's enormously telling that as far back as 1998, when the American Geophysical 
Union (AGU) convened a series of focus groups designed to gauge attitudes 
toward global warming, it discovered that "Many respondents in our focus groups 
were convinced that the underlying cause of environmental problems (such as 
pollution and toxic waste) is a pervasive climate of rampant selfishness and greed, 
and since they see this moral deterioration to be irreversible, they feel that 
environmental problems are unsolvable." Moreover, a growing body of 
psychological and sociological research shows that the AGU respondents were 
exactly right: there is a direct and compelling relationship between the dominance 
of the values that are intimately tied to triumphant capitalism and the presence of 
anti-environment views and behaviors. While a great deal of research has 
demonstrated that having politically conservative or "hierarchical" views and a 
pro-industry slant makes one particularly likely to deny climate change, there is an 
even larger number of studies connecting materialistic values (and even free 
market ideology) to carelessness not just about climate change, but to a great many 
environmental risks. At Knox College in Illinois, psychologist Tim Kasser has 
been at the forefront of this work. "To the extent people prioritize values and goals 
such as achievement, money, power, status and image, they tend to hold more 


negative attitudes towards the environment, are less likely to engage in positive 
environmental behaviors, and are more likely to use natural resources 
unsustainably," write Kasser and British environmental strategist Tom Crompton 
in their 2009 book, Meeting Environmental Challenges: The Role of Human 
Identity. ,~ 

In other words, the culture that triumphed in our corporate age pits us against 
the natural world. This could easily be a cause only for despair. But if there is a 
reason for social movements to exist, it is not to accept dominant values as fixed 
and unchangeable but to offer other ways to live — to wage, and win, a battle of 
cultural worldviews. That means laying out a vision of the world that competes 
directly with the one on harrowing display at the Heartland conference and in so 
many other parts of our culture, one that resonates with the majority of people on 
the planet because it is true: That we are not apart from nature but of it. That acting 
collectively for a greater good is not suspect, and that such common projects of 
mutual aid are responsible for our species' greatest accomplishments. That greed 
must be disciplined and tempered by both rule and example. That poverty amidst 
plenty is unconscionable. 

It also means defending those parts of our societies that already express these 
values outside of capitalism, whether it's an embattled library, a public park, a 
student movement demanding free university tuition, or an immigrant rights 
movement fighting for dignity and more open borders. And most of all, it means 
continually drawing connections among these seemingly disparate struggles — 
asserting, for instance, that the logic that would cut pensions, food stamps, and 
health care before increasing taxes on the rich is the same logic that would blast 
the bedrock of the earth to get the last vapors of gas and the last drops of oil before 
making the shift to renewable energy. 

Many are attempting to draw these connections and are expressing these 
alternative values in myriad ways. And yet a robust movement responding to the 
climate crisis is not emerging fast enough. Why? Why aren't we, as a species, 
rising to our historical moment? Why are we so far letting "decade zero" slip 

It's rational for right-wing ideologues to deny climate change — to recognize it 
would be intellectually cataclysmic. But what is stopping so many who reject that 
ideology from demanding the kinds of powerful measures that the Heartlanders 
fear? Why aren't liberal and left political parties around the world calling for an 
end to extreme energy extraction and full transitions to renewal and regeneration- 
based economies? Why isn't climate change at the center of the progressive 


agenda, the burning basis for demanding a robust and reinvented commons, rather 
than an often forgotten footnote? Why do liberal media outlets still segregate 
stories about melting ice sheets in their "green" sections — next to viral videos of 
cuddly animals making unlikely friendships? Why are so many of us not doing the 
things that must be done to keep warming below catastrophic levels? 

The short answer is that the deniers won, at least the first round. Not the battle 
over climate science — their influence in that arena is already waning. But the 
deniers, and the ideological movement from which they sprang, won the battle 
over which values would govern our societies. Their vision — that greed should 
guide us, that, to quote the late economist Milton Friedman, "the major error" was 
"to believe that it is possible to do good with other people's money" — has 
dramatically remade our world over the last four decades, decimating virtually 
every countervailing power.~ Extreme free-market ideology was locked in 
through the harsh policy conditions attached to much-needed loans issued by the 
World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. It shaped the model of export- 
led development that dotted the developing world with free trade zones. It was 
written into countless trade agreements. Not everyone was convinced by these 
arguments, not by a long shot. But too many tacitly accepted Thatcher's dictum 
that there is no alternative. 

Meanwhile, denigration of collective action and veneration of the profit motive 
have infiltrated virtually every government on the planet, every major media 
organization, every university, our very souls. As that American Geophysical 
Union survey indicated, somewhere inside each of us dwells a belief in their central 
lie — that we are nothing but selfish, greedy, self-gratification machines. And if we 
are that, then what hope do we have of taking on the grand, often difficult, 
collective work that will be required to save ourselves in time? This, without a 
doubt, is neoliberalism' s single most damaging legacy: the realization of its bleak 
vision has isolated us enough from one another that it became possible to convince 
us that we are not just incapable of self-preservation but fundamentally not worth 

Yet at the same time, many of us know the mirror that has been held up to us is 
profoundly distorted — that we are, in fact, a mess of contradictions, with our desire 
for self-gratification coexisting with deep compassion, our greed with empathy and 
solidarity. And as Rebecca Solnit vividly documents in her 2009 book, A Paradise 
Built in Hell, it is precisely when humanitariancrises hit that these other, neglected 
values leap to the fore, whether it's the incredible displays of international 
generosity after a massive earthquake or tsunami, or the way New Yorkers 


gathered to spontaneously meet and comfort one another after the 9/1 1 attacks. 
Just as the Heartlanders fear, the existential crisis that is climate change has the 
power to release these suppressed values on a global and sustained scale, to provide 
us with a chance for a mass jailbreak from the house that their ideology built — a 
structure already showing significant cracks and fissures.^ 

But before that can happen, we need to take a much closer look at precisely how 
the legacy of market fundamentalism, and the much deeper cultural narratives on 
which it rests, still block critical, life-saving climate action on virtually every front. 
The green movement's mantra that climate is not about left and right but "right 
and wrong" has gotten us nowhere. The traditional political left does not hold all 
the answers to this crisis. But there can be no question that the contemporary 
political right, and the triumphant ideology it represents, is a formidable barrier to 

As the next four chapters will show, the real reason we are failing to rise to the 
climate moment is because the actions required directly challenge our reigning 
economic paradigm (deregulated capitalism combined with public austerity), the 
stories on which Western cultures are founded (that we stand apart from nature and 
can outsmart its limits), as well as many of the activities that form our identities 
and define our communities (shopping, living virtually, shopping some more). 
They also spell extinction for the richest and most powerful industry the world has 
ever known — the oil and gas industry, which cannot survive in anything like its 
current form if we humans are to avoid our own extinction. In short, we have not 
responded to this challenge because we are locked in — politically, physically, and 
culturally. Only when we identify these chains do we have a chance of breaking 

~ Much of this confidence is based on fantasy. Though the ultra-rich may be able to buy a measure of 
protection for a while, even the wealthiest nation on the planet can fall apart in the face of a major shock 
(as Hurricane Katrina showed). And no society, no matter how well financed or managed, can truly adapt 
to massive natural disasters when one comes fast and furious on the heels of the last. 

~ In early 201 1, Joe Read, a newly elected representative to the Montana state legislature, made history by 
introducing the first bill to officially declare climate change a good thing. "Global warming is beneficial to 
the welfare and business climate of Montana," the bill stated. Read explained, "Even if it does get warmer, 
we're going to have a longer growing season. It could be very beneficial to the state of Montana. Why are 
we going to stop this progress?" The bill did not pass. 

1 In a telling development, the American Freedom Alliance hosted its own conference challenging the 
reality of climate change in Los Angeles in June 201 1. Part of the Alliance's stated mission is "to identify 
threats to Western civilization," and it is known for its fearmongering about "the Islamic penetration of 
Europe" and similar supposed designs in the U.S. Meanwhile, one of the books on sale at the Heartland 
conference wasGoing Green by Chris Skates, a fictional "thriller" in which climate activists plot with 
Islamic terrorists to destroy America's electricity grid. 




How Free Market Fundamentalism Helped Overheat the Planet 

"We always had hope that next year was gonna be better. And even this 
year was gonna be better. We learned slowly, and what didn't work, you 
tried it harder the next time. You didn't try something different. You just 
tried harder, the same thing that didn't work." 

-Wayne Lewis, Dust Bowl survivor, 20 12 1 

"As leaders we have a responsibility to fully articulate the risks our 
people face. If the politics are not favorable to speaking truthfully, then 
clearly we must devote more energy to changing the politics." 


-Marlene Moses, Ambassador to the United Nations for Nauru, 2012 

During the globalization wars of the late nineties and early 2000s, I used to follow 
international trade law extremely closely. But I admit that as I immersed myself in 
the science and politics of climate change, I stopped paying attention to trade. I 
told myself that there was only so much abstract, bureaucratic jargon one person 
could be expected to absorb, and my quota was filled up with emission mitigation 
targets, feed-in tariffs, and the United Nations' alphabet soup of UNFCCCs and 

Then about three years ago, I started to notice that green energy programs — the 
strong ones that are needed to lower global emissions fast — were increasingly 
being challenged under international trade agreements, particularly the World 
Trade Organization's rules. 

In 2010, for instance, the United States challenged one of China's wind power 
subsidy programs on the grounds that it contained supports for local industry 


considered protectionist. China, in turn, filed a complaint in 2012 targeting various 
renewable energy programs in the European Union, singling out Italy and Greece 
(it has also threatened to bring a dispute against renewables subsidies in five U.S. 
states). Washington, meanwhile, has launched a World Trade Organization attack 
on India's ambitious Jawaharlal Nehru National Solar Mission, a large, multiphase 
solar support program — once again, for containing provisions, designed to 
encourage local industry, considered to be protectionist. As a result, brand-new 
factories that should be producing solar panels are now contemplating closure. Not 
to be outdone, India has signaled that it might take aim at state renewable energy 


programs in the U.S." 

This is distinctly bizarre behavior to exhibit in the midst of a climate emergency. 
Especially because these same governments can be counted upon to angrily 
denounce each other at United Nations climate summits for not doing enough to 
cut emissions, blaming their own failures on the other's lack of commitment. Yet 
rather than compete for the best, most effective supports for green energy, the 
biggest emitters in the world are rushing to the WTO to knock down each other' s 

As one case piled on top of another, it seemed to me that it was time to delve 
back into the trade wars. And as I explored the issue further, I discovered that one 
of the key, precedent- setting cases pitting "free trade" against climate action was 
playing out in Ontario, Canada — my own backyard. Suddenly, trade law became 
a whole lot less abstract. 

Sitting at the long conference table overlooking his factory floor, Paolo Maccario, 
an elegant Italian businessman who moved to Toronto to open a solar factory, has 
the proud, resigned air of a captain determined to go down with his ship. He makes 
an effort to put on a brave face: True, "the Ontario market is pretty much gone," 
but the company will find new customers for its solar panels, he tells me, maybe 
in Europe, or the United States. Their products are good, best in class, and "the 
cost is competitive enough. 

As chief operating officer of Silfab Ontario, Maccario has to say these things; 
anything else would be a breach of fiduciary duty. But he is also frank that the last 
few months have been almost absurdly bad. Old customers are convinced the 
factory is going to close down and won't be able to honor the twenty-five-year 
warranty on the solar panels they purchased. New customers aren't placing orders 
over the same concerns, opting to go with Chinese companies that are selling less 


efficient but cheaper modules. Suppliers who had been planning to set up their 
own factories nearby to cut down on transport costs are now keeping their distance. 

Even his own board back home in Italy (Silfab is owned by Silfab SpA, whose 
founder was a pioneer in Italian photovoltaic manufacturing) seemed to be 
jumping ship. The parent company had committed to invest around $7 million on 
a custom piece of machinery that, according to Maccario, would have created solar 
modules that "have an efficiency that has not been reached by any manufacturer in 
China and in the Western world." But at the last minute, and after all the research 
and design for the machinery was complete, "It was decided that we cannot spend 
the money to bring the technology here," Maccario explains. We put on hair nets 
and lab coats and he shows me an empty rectangle in the middle of the factory 
floor, the space set aside for equipment that is not coming. 

What are the chances he would choose to open this factory here today, given all 
that has happened, I ask. At this, all attempts at PR drop away and he replies, "I 
would say below zero if such a number exists." 

With his finely tailored wool suit and trim salt and pepper goatee, Maccario 
looks as if he should be sipping espresso in a piazza in Turin, working for Fiat 
perhaps — not stuck in this concrete box with an unopened yogurt on his desk, 
across the street from Imperial Chilled Juice and down the road from the ass end 
of an AMC multiplex. 

And yet in 2010, the decision to locate the company's first North American solar 
manufacturing plant in Ontario seemed to make a great deal of sense. Back then 
the mood in Ontario's renewable sector was positively giddy. One year earlier, at 
the peak of the Wall Street financial crisis, the province had unveiled its climate 
action plan, the Green Energy and Green Economy Act, centered on a bold pledge 
to wean Canada's most populous province completely off coal by 2014.~ 

The plan was lauded by energy experts around the world, particularly in the U.S., 
where such ambition was lagging. On a visit to Toronto, Al Gore offered his 
highest blessing, proclaiming it "widely recognized now as the single best green 
energy [program] on the North American continent." And Michael T. Eckhart, then 
president of the American Council on Renewable Energy, described it as "the most 
comprehensive renewable energy policy entered anywhere around the world." 

The legislation created what is known as a feed-in tariff program, which allowed 
renewable energy providers to sell power back to the grid, offering long-term 
contracts with guaranteed premium prices. It also contained a variety of provisions 
to ensure that the developers weren't all big players but that local municipalities, 
co-ops, and Indigenous communities could all get into the renewable energy 


market and benefit from those premium rates. The catch was that in order for most 
of the energy providers to qualify, they had to ensure that a minimum percentage 
of their workforces and materials were local to Ontario. And the province set the 
bar high: solar energy developers had to source at least 40-60 percent of their 


content from within the province. 

The provision was an attempt to revive Ontario's moribund manufacturing 
sector, which had long been centered on the Big Three U.S. automakers (Chrysler, 
Ford, and General Motors) and was, at that time, reeling from the near bankruptcy 
of General Motors and Chrysler. Compounding these challenges was the fact that 
Alberta's tar sands oil boom had sent the Canadian dollar soaring, making Ontario 
a much costlier place to build anything. 

In the years that followed the announcement, Ontario's efforts to get off coal 
were plagued by political blunders. Large natural gas and wind developers ran 
roughshod over local communities, while the government wasted hundreds of 
millions (at least) trying to clean up the unnecessary messes. Yet even with all 
these screwups, the core of the program was an undeniable success. By 2012, 
Ontario was the largest solar producer in Canada and by 2013, it had only one 
working coal-fired power plant left. The local content requirements — as the "buy 
local" and "hire local" provisions are called — were also proving to be a significant 
boost to the ailing manufacturing sector: by 2014, more than 31,000 jobs had been 


created and a wave of solar and wind manufacturers had set up shop. 

Silfab is a great example of how it worked. The Italian owners had already 
decided to open a solar panel plant in North America. The company had considered 
Mexico but was leaning toward the United States. The obvious choices, Maccario 
told me, were California, Hawaii, and Texas, all of which offered lots of sunshine 
and corporate incentives, as well as large and growing markets for their product. 
Ontario — overcast and cold a lot of the year — wasn't "on the radar screen," he 
admitted. That changed when the province introduced the green energy plan with 
its local-content provisions, which Maccario described as a "very gutsy and very 
well intended program." The provisions meant that in communities that switched 
to renewable energy, companies like his could count on a stable market for their 
products, one that was protected from having to compete head-to-head with 
cheaper solar panels from China. So Silfab chose Toronto for its first North 
American solar plant. 

Ontario's politicians loved Silfab. It helped that the building the company 
purchased to produce its panels was an abandoned auto parts factory, then sitting 
idle like so many others. And many of the workers the company hired also came 


from the auto sector — men and women from Chrysler and the autoparts giant 
Magna, who had years of experience working with the kind of robotic arms that 
are used to assemble Silfab's high-tech panels. When the plant opened, Wayne 
Wright, a laid-off auto worker who landed a job as a production operator on the 
Silfab line, spoke movingly about his seventeen-year-old son, who told him that 
"finally" his dad's new job would be "creating a better future for all the younger 

And then things started to go very wrong. Just as the U.S. has acted against local 
renewable supports in China and India, so Japan and then the European Union let 
it be known that they considered Ontario's local-content requirement to be a 
violation of World Trade Organization rules. Specifically, they claimed that the 
requirement that a fixed percentage of renewable energy equipment be made in 
Ontario would "discriminate against equipment for renewable energy generation 
facilities produced outside Ontario. "~ 

The WTO ruled against Canada, determining that Ontario's buy-local provisions 
were indeed illegal. And the province wasted little time in nixing the local-content 


rules that had been so central to its program. It was this, Maccario said, that led 
his foreign investors to pull their support for factory expansion. "Seeing all those, 
for lack of a better term, mixed messages . . . was the straw that broke the camel's 

It was also why many plants like his could well close, and others have decided 
not to open in the first place. 

Trade Trumps Climate 

From a climate perspective, the WTO ruling was an outrage: if there is to be any 
hope of meeting the agreed-upon 2 degree Celsius target, wealthy economies like 
Canada must make getting off fossil fuels their top priority. It is a moral duty, one 
that the federal government undertook when it signed the Kyoto Protocol in 1997. 
Ontario was putting real policies in place to honor that commitment (unlike the 
Canadian government as a whole, which has allowed emissions to balloon, leading 
it to withdraw from the Kyoto Protocol rather than face international censure). 
Most importantly, the program was working. How absurd, then, for the WTO to 
interfere with that success — to let trade trump the planet itself. 

And yet from a strictly legal standpoint, Japan and the EU were perfectly correct. 
One of the key provisions in almost all free trade agreements involves something 


called "national treatment," which requires governments to make no distinction 
between goods produced by local companies and goods produced by foreign firms 
outside their borders. Indeed, favoring local industry constitutes illegal 
"discrimination." This was a flashpoint in the free trade wars back in the 1990s, 
precisely because these restrictions effectively prevent governments from doing 
what Ontario was trying to do: create jobs by requiring the sourcing of local goods 
as a condition of government support. This was just one of the many fateful battles 
that progressives lost in those years. 

Defenders of these trade deals argue that protections like Ontario's buy-local 
provisions distort the free market and should be eliminated. Some green energy 
entrepreneurs (usually those that purchase their products from China) have made 
similar arguments, insisting that it doesn't matter where solar panel and wind 
turbines are produced: the goal should be to get the cheapest products to the 
consumer so that the green transition can happen as quickly as possible. 

The biggest problem with these arguments is the notion that there is any free 
market in energy to be protected from distortion. Not only do fossil fuel companies 
receive $775 billion to $1 trillion in annual global subsidies, but they pay nothing 
for the privilege of treating our shared atmosphere as a free waste dump — a fact 
that has been described by the Stem Review on the Economics of Climate 
Change as "the greatest market failure the world has ever seen." That freebie is the 


real distortion, that theft of the sky the real subsidy.^ 

In order to cope with these distortions (which the WTO has made no attempt to 
correct), governments need to take a range of aggressive steps — from price 
guarantees to straight subsidies — so that green energy has a fair shot at competing. 
We know from experience that this works: Denmark has among the most 
successful renewable energy programs in the world, with 40 percent of its 
electricity coming from renewables, mostly wind. But it's significant that the 
program was rolled out in the 1980s, before the free trade era began, when there 
was no one to argue with the Danish government's generous subsidies to the 
community-controlled energy projects putting up wind turbines (in 1980, new 


installations were subsidized by up to 30 percent). 

As Scott Sinclair of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives has pointed out, 
"many of the policies Denmark used to launch its renewable energy industry would 
have been inconsistent with ... international trade and investment agreements," 
since favoring "locally owned cooperatives would conflict with non- 
discrimination rules requiring that foreign companies be treated no less favourably 
than domestic suppliers." 


And Aaron Cosbey, a development economist and trade and climate expert who 
is generally supportive of the WTO, rightly notes that the promise of local job 
creation has been key to the political success of renewable energy programs. "In 
many cases the green jobs argument is the deciding factor that convinces 
governments to dole out support. And such requirements, if attached to subsidies 
or investment privileges, violate WTO obligations." 1 ^ 

Which is why governments adopting these tried-and-tested policies — of which 
there have been far too few — are the ones getting dragged into trade court, whether 
China, India, Ontario, or the European Union. 

Worse, it's not only critical supports for renewable energy that are at risk of 
these attacks. Any attempt by a government to regulate the sale or extraction of 
particularly dirty kinds of fossil fuels is also vulnerable to similar trade challenges. 
The European Union, for instance, is considering new fuel quality standards that 
would effectively restrict the sales of oil derived from such high-carbon sources as 
the Alberta tar sands. It's excellent climate policy, of the kind we need much more, 
but the effort has been slowed down by Canada's not so subtle threats of trade 
retaliation. Meanwhile, the European Union is using bilateral trade talks to try to 
circumvent longstanding U.S. restrictions on oil and gas exports, including a 
decades-old export ban on crude oil. In July 2014, a leaked negotiating document 
revealed that Europe is pushing for a "legally binding commitment" that would 
guarantee its ability to import fracked gas and oil from North Dakota's Bakken 


formation and elsewhere. 

Almost a decade ago, a WTO official claimed that the organization enables 
challenges against "almost any measure to reduce greenhouse gas emissions" — 
there was little public reaction at the time, but clearly there should have been. And 
the WTO is far from the only trade weapon that can be used in such battles — so 

1 8 

too can countless bilateral and regional free trade and investment agreements. 

As we will see later on, these trade deals may even give multinationals the power 
to overturn landmark grassroots victories against highly controversial extractive 
activities like natural gas fracking: in 2012, an oil company began taking steps to 
use NAFTA to challenge Quebec's hard-won fracking moratorium, claiming it 


robbed the company of its right to drill for gas in the province. (The case is 
ongoing.) As more activist victories are won, more such legal challenges should 
be expected. 

In some of these cases, governments may successfully defend their emission- 
reducing activities in trade court. But in too many others, they can be relied upon 
to cave in early, not wanting to appear anti-free trade (which is likely what is 


behind Ontario's quiet acceptance of the WTO's ruling against its green energy 
plan). These challenges aren't killing renewable energy; in the U.S. and China, for 
instance, the solar market continues to grow impressively. But it is not happening 
fast enough. And the legal uncertainty that now surrounds some of the most 
significant green energy programs in the world is bogging us down at the very 
moment when science is telling us we need to leap ahead. To allow arcane trade 
law, which has been negotiated with scant public scrutiny, to have this kind of 
power over an issue so critical to humanity's future is a special kind of madness. 
As Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz puts it, "Should you let a group 
of foolish lawyers, who put together something before they understood these 


issues, interfere with saving the planet?" 

Clearly not. Steven Shrybman, an international trade and public interest lawyer 
who has worked with a broad range of civil society groups to defend against these 
trade challenges, says that the problem is structural. "If the trade rules don't permit 
all kinds of important measures to deal with climate change — and they don't — 
then the trade rules obviously have to be rewritten. Because there is no way in the 
world that we can have a sustainable economy and maintain international trade 


rules as they are. There's no way at all." 

This is exactly the sort of commonsense conclusion that has the Heartlanders so 
very scared of climate change. Because when people wake up to the fact that our 
governments have locked us into dozens of agreements that make important parts 
of a robust climate change response illegal, they will have an awfully powerful 
argument to oppose any such new deals until the small matter of our planet's 
habitability is satisfactorily resolved. 

The same goes for all kinds of free market orthodoxies that threaten our capacity 
to respond boldly to this crisis, from the suffocating logic of austerity that prevents 
governments from making the necessary investments in low-carbon infrastructure 
(not to mention firefighting and flood response), to the auctioning off of electric 
utilities to private corporations that, in many cases, refuse to switch over to less 
profitable renewables. 

Indeed the three policy pillars of the neoliberal age — privatization of the public 
sphere, deregulation of the corporate sector, and the lowering of income and 
corporate taxes, paid for with cuts to public spending — are each incompatible with 
many of the actions we must take to bring our emissions to safe levels. And 
together these pillars form an ideological wall that has blocked a serious response 
to climate change for decades. Before delving more deeply into the ways the 


climate crisis calls for dismantling that wall, it' s helpful to look a little more closely 
at the epic case of bad timing that landed us where we are today. 

A Wall Comes Down, Emissions Go Up 

If the climate movement had a birthday, a moment when the issue pierced the 
public consciousness and could no longer be ignored, it would have to be June 23, 
1988. Global warming had been on the political and scientific radar long before 
that, however. The basic insights central to our current understanding date back to 
the beginning of the second half of the nineteenth century, and the first scientific 
breakthroughs demonstrating that burning carbon could be warming the planet 
were made in the late 1950s. In 1965, the concept was so widely accepted among 
specialists that U.S. president Lyndon B. Johnson was given a report from his 
Science Advisory Committee warning that, "Through his worldwide industrial 
civilization, Man is unwittingly conducting a vast geophysical experiment. . . . The 
climatic changes that may be produced by the increased CChcontent could be 


deleterious from the point of view of human beings." 

But it wasn't until James Hansen, then director of NASA's Goddard Institute for 
Space Studies, testified before a packed congressional hearing on June 23, 1988, 
that global warming became the stuff of chat shows and political speeches. With 
temperatures in Washington, D.C., a sweltering 98 degrees Fahrenheit (still a 
record for that day), and the building's air conditioning on the fritz, Hansen told a 
room filled with sweaty lawmakers that he had "99 percent confidence" in "a real 
warming trend" linked to human activity. In a comment to The New York Times he 
added that it was "time to stop waffling" about the science. Later that same month, 
hundreds of scientists and policymakers held the historic World Conference on the 
Changing Atmosphere in Toronto where the first emission reductions were 
discussed. The United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change 
(IPCC), the premier scientific body advising governments on the climate threat, 
held its first session that November. By the following year, 79 percent of 
Americans had heard of the greenhouse effect — a leap from just 38 percent in 
1981 — 

The issue was so prominent that when the editors of 77raemagazine announced 
their 1988 "Man of the Year," they went for an unconventional choice: "Planet of 
the Year: Endangered Earth," read the magazine's cover line, over an image of the 
globe held together with twine, the sun setting ominously in the background. "No 


single individual, no event, no movement captured imaginations or dominated 
headlines more," journalist Thomas Sancton explained, "than the clump of rock 


and soil and water and air that is our common home." 

More striking than the image was Sancton's accompanying essay. "This year the 
earth spoke, like God warning Noah of the deluge. Its message was loud and clear, 
and suddenly people began to listen, to ponder what portents the message held." 
That message was so profound, so fundamental, he argued, that it called into 
question the founding myths of modern Western culture. Here it is worth quoting 
Sancton at length as he described the roots of the crisis: 

In many pagan societies, the earth was seen as a mother, a fertile giver of life. 
Nature — the soil, forest, sea — was endowed with divinity, and mortals were 
subordinate to it. The Judeo-Christian tradition introduced a radically 
different concept. The earth was the creation of a monotheistic God, who, 
after shaping it, ordered its inhabitants, in the words of Genesis: "Be fruitful 
and multiply, and replenish the earth and subdue it: and have dominion over 
the fish of the sea and over the fowl of the air and over every living thing that 
moveth upon the earth." The idea of dominion could be interpreted as an 


invitation to use nature as a convenience. 

The diagnosis wasn't original — indeed it was a synthesis of the founding 
principles of ecological thought. But to read these words in America's most 
studiously centrist magazine was nothing short of remarkable. For this reason and 
others, the start of 1989 felt to many in the environmental movement like a 
momentous juncture, as if the thawing of the Cold War and the warming of the 
planet were together helping to birth a new consciousness, one in which 
cooperation would triumph over domination, and humility before nature's 
complexity would challenge technological hubris. 

As governments came together to debate responses to climate change, strong 
voices from developing countries spoke up, insisting that the core of the problem 
was the high-consumption lifestyle that dominated in the West. In a speech in 
1989, for instance, India's President R. Venkataraman argued that the global 
environmental crisis was the result of developed countries' "excessive 
consumption of all materials and through large-scale industrialization intended to 


support their styles of life." If wealthy countries consumed less, then everyone 
would be safer. 

But if that was the way 1989 began, it would end very differently. In the months 
that followed, popular uprisings would spread across the Soviet-controlled Eastern 
Bloc, from Poland to Hungary and finally to East Germany where, in November 


1989, the Berlin Wall collapsed. Under the banner "the End of History," right- 
wing ideologues in Washington seized on this moment of global flux to crush all 
political competition, whether socialism, Keynesianism, or deep ecology. They 
waged a frontal attack on political experimentation, on the idea that there might be 
viable ways of organizing societies other than deregulated capitalism. 

Within a decade, all that would be left standing would be their own extreme, 
pro-corporate ideology. Not only would the Western consumer lifestyle survive 
intact, it would grow significantly more lavish, with U.S. credit card debt per 


household increasing fourfold between 1980 and 2010. Simultaneously, that 
voracious lifestyle would be exported to the middle and upper classes in every 
corner of the globe — including, despite earlier protestations, India, where it would 
wreak environmental damage on a scale difficult to fathom. The victories in the 
new era would be faster and bigger than almost anyone predicted; and the armies 
of losers would be left to pick through the ever-growing mountains of methane- 
spewing waste. 

Trade and Climate: Two Solitudes 

Throughout this period of rapid change, the climate and trade negotiations closely 
paralleled one another, each winning landmark agreements within a couple of 
years of each other. In 1992, governments met for the first United Nations Earth 
Summit in Rio, where they signed the United Nations Framework Convention on 
Climate Change (UNFCCC), the document that formed the basis for all future 
climate negotiations. That same year, the North American Free Trade Agreement 
was signed, going into effect two years later. Also in 1994, negotiations 
establishing the World Trade Organization concluded, and the new global trade 
body made its debut the next year. In 1997, the Kyoto Protocol was adopted, 
containing the first binding emission reduction targets. In 2001, China gained full 
membership in the WTO, the culmination of a trade and investment liberalization 
process that had begun decades earlier. 

What is most remarkable about these parallel processes — trade on the one hand, 
climate on the other — is the extent to which they functioned as two solitudes. 
Indeed, each seemed to actively pretend that the other did not exist, ignoring the 
most glaring questions about how one would impact the other. Like, for example: 
How would the vastly increased distances that basic goods would now travel — by 
carbon- spewing container ships and jumbo jets, as well as diesel trucks — impact 


the carbon emissions that the climate negotiations were aiming to reduce? How 
would the aggressive protections for technology patents enshrined under the WTO 
impact the demands being made by developing nations in the climate negotiations 
for free transfers of green technologies to help them develop on a low-carbon path? 
And perhaps most critically, how would provisions that allowed private companies 
to sue national governments over laws that impinged on their profits dissuade 
governments from adopting tough antipollution regulations, for fear of getting 

These questions were not debated by government negotiators, nor was any 
attempt made to resolve their obvious contradictions. Not that there was ever any 
question about which side would win should any of the competing pledges to cut 
emissions and knock down commercial barriers ever come into direct conflict: the 
commitments made in the climate negotiations all effectively functioned on the 
honor system, with a weak and unthreatening mechanism to penalize countries that 
failed to keep their promises. The commitments made under trade agreements, 
however, were enforced by a dispute settlement system with real teeth, and 
failure to comply would land governments in trade court, often facing harsh 

In fact, the hierarchy was so clear that the climate negotiators formally declared 
their subservience to the trading system from the start. When the U.N. climate 
agreement was signed at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, it made clear that 
"measures taken to combat climate change, including unilateral ones, should not 
constitute ... a disguised restriction on international trade." (Similar language 
appears in the Kyoto Protocol.) As Australian political scientist Robyn Eckersley 
puts it, this was "the pivotal moment that set the shape of the relationship between 
the climate and trade regimes" because, "Rather than push for the recalibration of 
the international trade rules to conform with the requirements of climate 
protection . . . the Parties to the climate regime have ensured that liberalized trade 
and an expanding global economy have been protected against trade-restrictive 
climate policies." This practically guaranteed that the negotiating process would 
be unable to reckon with the kinds of bold but "trade -restrictive" policy options 
that could have been coordinated internationally — from buy-local renewable 
energy programs to restrictions on trade in goods produced with particularly high 
carbon footprints.^ 

A few isolated voices were well aware that the modest gains being made in the 
negotiations over "sustainable development" were being actively unmade by the 
new trade and investment architecture. One of those voices belonged to Martin 


Khor, then director of the Third World Network, which has been a key advisor to 
developing country governments in both trade and climate talks. At the end of the 
1992 Rio Earth Summit, Khor cautioned that there was a "general feeling among 
Southern country delegates ... that events outside the [summit] process were 
threatening to weaken the South further and to endanger whatever positive 
elements exist in" the Rio agenda. The examples he cited were the austerity 
policies being pushed at the time by the World Bank and the International 
Monetary Fund, as well as the trade negotiations that would soon result in the 


creation of the WTO. 

Another early warning was sounded by Steven Shrybman, who observed a 
decade and a half ago that the global export of industrial agriculture had already 
dealt a devastating blow to any possible progress on emissions. In a paper 
published in 2000, Shrybman argued that "the globalization of agricultural systems 
over recent decades is likely to have been one of the most important causes of 


overall increases in greenhouse gas emissions." 

This had far less to do with current debates about the "food miles" associated 
with imported versus local produce than with the way in which the trade system, 
by granting companies like Monsanto and Cargill their regulatory wish list — from 
unfettered market access to aggressive patent protection to the maintenance of their 
rich subsidies — has helped to entrench and expand the energy-intensive, higher- 
emissions model of industrial agriculture around the world. This, in turn, is a major 
explanation for why the global food system now accounts for between 19 and 29 
percent of world greenhouse gas emissions. "Trade policy and rules actually drive 
climate change in a very structural way in respect of food systems," Shrybman 
stressed in an interview.^ 

The habit of willfully erasing the climate crisis from trade agreements continues 
to this day: for instance, in early 2014, several negotiating documents for the 
proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership, a controversial new NAFTA-style trade deal 
spanning twelve countries, were released to the public via WikiLeaks and the 
Peruvian human rights group RedGE. A draft of the environment chapter had 
contained language stating that countries "acknowledge climate change as a global 
concern that requires collective action and recognize the importance of 
implementation of their respective commitments under the United Nations 
Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)." The language was vague 
and nonbinding, but at least it was a tool that governments could use to defend 
themselves should their climate policies be challenged in a trade tribunal, as 
Ontario's plan was. But a later document showed that U.S. negotiators had 


proposed an edit: take out all the stuff about climate change and UNFCCC 
commitments. In other words, while trade has repeatedly been allowed to trump 


climate, under no circumstances would climate be permitted to trump traded 

Nor was it only the trade negotiators who blocked out the climate crisis as they 
negotiated agreements that would send emissions soaring and make many 
solutions to this problem illegal. The climate negotiations exhibited their own 
special form of denial. In the early and mid-1990s, while the first climate protocol 
was being drafted, these negotiators, along with the Intergovernmental Panel on 
Climate Change, hashed out the details of precisely how countries should measure 
and monitor how much carbon they were emitting — a necessary process since 
governments were on the verge of pledging their first round of emission 
reductions, which would need to be reported and monitored. 

The emissions accounting system on which they settled was an odd relic of the 
pre-free trade era that took absolutely no account of the revolutionary changes 
unfolding right under their noses regarding how (and where) the world's goods 
were being manufactured. For instance, emissions from the transportation of goods 
across borders — all those container ships, whose traffic has increased by nearly 
400 percent over the last twenty years — are not formally attributed to any nation- 
state and therefore no one country is responsible for reducing their polluting 
impact. (And there remains little momentum at the U.N. for changing that, despite 


the reality that shipping emissions are set to double or even triple by 2050.)"" 

And fatefully, countries are responsible only for the pollution they create inside 
their own borders — not for the pollution produced in the manufacturing of goods 
that are shipped to their shores; those are attributed to the countries where the 


goods were produced.^ This means that the emissions that went into producing, 
say, the television in my living room, appear nowhere on Canada's emissions 
ledger, but rather are attributed entirely to China's ledger, because that is where 
the set was made. And the international emissions from the container ship that 
carried my TV across the ocean (and then sailed back again) aren't entered into 
anyone's account book. 

This deeply flawed system has created a vastly distorted picture of the drivers 
of global emissions. It has allowed rapidly de-industrializing wealthy states to 
claim that their emissions have stabilized or even gone down when, in fact, the 
emissions embedded in their consumption have soared during the free trade era. 
For instance, in 2011, the Proceedings of the National Academy of 
Sciences published a study of the emissions from industrialized countries that 
signed the Kyoto Protocol. It found that while their emissions had stopped 


growing, that was partly because international trade had allowed these countries to 
move their dirty production overseas. The researchers concluded that the rise in 
emissions from goods produced in developingcountries but consumed in 
industrialized ones was six timesgreater than the emissions savings of 


industrialized countries. 

Cheap Labor, Dirty Energy: A Package Deal 

As the free trade system was put in place and producing offshore became the rule, 
emissions did more than move — they multiplied. As mentioned earlier, before the 
neoliberal era, emissions growth had been slowing, from 4.5 percent annual 
increases in the 1960s to about 1 percent a year in the 1990s. But the new 
millennium was a watershed: between 2000 and 2008, the growth rate reached 3.4 
percent a year, shooting past the highest IPCC projections of the day. In 2009, it 
dipped due to the financial crisis, but made up for lost time with the historic 5.9 
percent increase in 2010 that left climate watchers reeling. (In mid-2014, two 
decades after the creation of the WTO, the IPCC finally acknowledged the reality 
of globalization and noted in its Fifth Assessment Report, "A growing share of 
total anthropogenic CO2 emissions is released in the manufacture of products that 
are traded across international borders. ")~ 

The reason for what Andreas Malm — a Swedish expert on the history of coal — 
describes as "the early 21st Century emissions explosion" is straightforward 
enough. When China became the "workshop of the world" it also became the coal- 
spewing "chimney of the world." By 2007, China was responsible for two thirds 
of the annual increase in global emissions. Some of that was the result of China's 
own internal development — bringing electricity to rural areas, and building roads. 
But a lot of it was directly tied to foreign trade: according to one study, between 
2002 and 2008, 48 percent of China's total emissions was related to producing 
goods for export. 22 

"One of the reasons why we're in the climate crisis is because of this model of 
globalization," says Margrete Strand Rangnes, executive vice president at Public 
Citizen, a Washington-based policy institute that has been at the forefront of the 
fight against free trade. And that, she says, is a problem that requires "a pretty 


fundamental re-formation of our economy, if we're going to do this right." 

International trade deals were only one of the reasons that 
governments embraced this particular model of fast-and-dirty, export-led 


development, and every country had its own peculiarities. In many cases (though 
not China's), the conditions attached to loans from the International Monetary 
Fund and World Bank were a major factor, so was the economic orthodoxy 
imparted to elite students at schools like Harvard and the University of Chicago. 
All of these and other factors played a role in shaping what was (never ironically) 
referred to as the Washington Consensus. Underneath it all is the constant drive 
for endless economic growth, a drive that, as will be explored later on, goes much 
deeper than the trade history of the past few decades. But there is no question that 
the trade architecture and the economic ideology embedded within it played a 
central role in sending emissions into hyperdrive. 

That's because one of the primary driving forces of the particular trade system 
designed in the 1980s and 1990s was always to allow multinationals the freedom 
to scour the globe in search of the cheapest and most exploitable labor force. It was 
a journey that passed through Mexico and Central America's sweatshop 
maquiladoras and had a long stopover in South Korea. But by the end of the 1990s, 
virtually all roads led to China, a country where wages were extraordinarily low, 
trade unions were brutally suppressed, and the state was willing to spend 
seemingly limitless funds on massive infrastructure projects — modern ports, 
sprawling highway systems, endless numbers of coal-fired power plants, massive 
dams — all to ensure that the lights stayed on in the factories and the goods made it 
from the assembly lines onto the container ships on time. A free trader's dream, in 
other words — and a climate nightmare. 

A nightmare because there is a close correlation between low wages and high 
emissions, or as Malm puts it, "a causal link between the quest for cheap and 
disciplined labor power and rising CO2 emissions." And why wouldn't there be? 
The same logic that is willing to work laborers to the bone for pennies a day will 
burn mountains of dirty coal while spending next to nothing on pollution controls 
because it's the cheapest way to produce. So when the factories moved to China, 
they also got markedly dirtier. As Malm points out, Chinese coal use was declining 
slightly between 1995 and 2000, only for the explosion in manufacturing to send 
it soaring once again. It's not that the companies moving their production to 
China wanted to drive up emissions: they were after the cheap labor, but exploited 
workers and an exploited planet are, it turns out, a package deal. A destabilized 

climate is the cost of deregulated, global capitalism, its unintended, yet 


unavoidable consequence. 

This connection between pollution and labor exploitation has been true since the 
earliest days of the Industrial Revolution. But in the past, when workers organized 


to demand better wages, and when city dwellers organized to demand cleaner air, 
the companies were pretty much forced to improve both working and 
environmental standards. That changed with the advent of free trade: thanks to the 
removal of virtually all barriers to capital flows, corporations could pick up and 
leave every time labor costs started rising. That's why many large manufacturers 
left South Korea for China in the late 1990s, and it's why many are now leaving 
China, where wages are climbing, for Bangladesh, where they are significantly 
lower. So while our clothes, electronics, and furniture may be made in China, the 
economic model was primarily made in the U.S.A. 

And yet when the subject of climate change comes up in discussion in wealthy, 
industrialized countries, the instant response, very often, is that it's all China's 
fault (and India's fault and Brazil's fault and so on). Why bother cutting our own 
emissions when everyone knows that the fast developing economies are the real 


problem, opening more coal plants every month than we could ever close? This 
argument is made as if we in the West are mere spectators to this reckless and dirty 
model of economic growth. As if it was not our governments and our 
multinationals that pushed a model of export-led development that made all of this 
possible. It is said as if it were not our own corporations who, with single-minded 
determination (and with full participation from China's autocratic rulers), turned 
the Pearl River Delta into their carbon- spewing special economic zone, with the 
goods going straight onto container ships headed to our superstores. All in the 
name of feeding the god of economic growth (via the altar of hyper-consumption) 
in every country in the world. 

The victims in all this are regular people: the workers who lose their factory jobs 
in Juarez and Windsor; the workers who get the factory jobs in Shenzhen and 
Dhaka, jobs that are by this point so degraded that some employers install nets 
along the perimeters of roofs to catch employees when they jump, or where safety 
codes are so lax that workers are killed in the hundreds when buildings collapse. 
The victims are also the toddlers mouthing lead-laden toys; the Walmart employee 
expected to work over the Thanksgiving holiday only to be trampled by a stampede 
of frenzied customers, while still not earning a living wage. And the Chinese 
villagers whose water is contaminated by one of those coal plants we use as our 
excuse for inaction, as well as the middle class of Beijing and Shanghai whose kids 


are forced to play inside because the air is so foul. 


A Movement Digs Its Own Grave 

The greatest tragedy of all is that so much of this was eminently avoidable. We 
knew about the climate crisis when the rules of the new trade system were being 
written. After all, NAFTA was signed just one year after governments, including 
the United States, signed the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate 
Change in Rio. And it was by no means inevitable that these deals would go 
through. A strong coalition of North American labor and environmental groups 
opposed NAFTA precisely because they knew it would drive down labor and 
environmental standards. For a time it even looked as if they would win. 

Public opinion in all three countries was deeply divided, so much so that when 
Bill Clinton ran for president in 1992, he pledged that he would not sign NAFTA 
until it substantively reflected those concerns. In Canada, Jean Chretien 
campaigned for prime minister against the deal in the election of 1993. Once both 
were in office, however, the deal was left intact and two toothless side agreements 
were tacked on, one for labor and one for environmental standards. The labor 
movement knew better than to fall for this ploy and continued to forcefully oppose 
the deal, as did many Democrats in the U.S. But for a complex set of reasons that 
will be explored later, having to do with a combination of reflexive political 
centrism and the growing influence of corporate "partners" and donors, the 
leadership of many large environmental organizations decided to play ball. "One 
by one, former NAFTA opponents and skeptics became enthusiastic supporters, 
and said so publicly," writes journalist Mark Dowie in his critical history of the 
U.S. environmental movement, Losing Ground. These Big Green groups even 
created their own pro-NAFTA organization, the Environmental Coalition for 
NAFTA — which included the National Wildlife Federation, the Environmental 
Defense Fund, Conservation International, the National Audubon Society, the 
Natural Resources Defense Council, and the World Wildlife Fund — which, 
according to Dowie provided its "unequivocal support to the agreement." Jay Hair, 
then head of the National Wildlife Federation, even flew to Mexico on an official 
U.S. trade mission to lobby his Mexican counterparts, while attacking his critics 


for "putting their protectionist polemics ahead of concern for the environment." 

Not everyone in the green movement hopped on the pro-trade bandwagon: 
Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, and the Sierra Club, as well as many small 
organizations, continued to oppose NAFTA. But that didn't matter to the Clinton 
administration, which had what it wanted — the ability to tell a skeptical public that 
"groups representing 80 percent of national [environmental] group membership 
have endorsed NAFTA." And that was important, because Clinton faced an uphill 


battle getting NAFTA through Congress, with many in his own party pledging to 
vote against the deal. John Adams, then director of the Natural Resources Defense 
Council, succinctly described the extraordinarily helpful role played by groups like 
his: "We broke the back of the environmental opposition to NAFTA. After we 


established our position Clinton only had labor to fight. We did him a big favor." 

Indeed when the president signed NAFTA into law in 1993, he made a special 
point of thanking "the environmental people who came out and worked through 
this — many of them at great criticism, particularly in the environmental 
movement." Clinton also made it clear that this victory was about more than one 
agreement. "Today we have the chance to do what our parents did before us. We 
have the opportunity to remake the world." He explained that, "We are on the verge 
of a global economic expansion.... Already the confidence we've displayed by 
ratifying NAFTA has begun to bear fruit. We are now making real progress toward 
a worldwide trade agreement so significant that it could make the material gains 
of NAFTA for our country look small by comparison." He was referring to the 
World Trade Organization. And just in case anyone was still worried about the 
environmental consequences, Clinton offered his personal assurance. "We will 
seek new institutional arrangements to ensure that trade leaves the world cleaner 


than before." 

Standing by the president's side was his vice president, Al Gore, who had been 
largely responsible for getting so many Big Green groups on board. Given this 
history, it should hardly come as a surprise that the mainstream environmental 
movement has been in no rush to draw attention to the disastrous climate impacts 
of the free trade era. To do so would only highlight their own active role in helping 
the U.S. government to, in Clinton's words, "remake the world." Much better, as 
we will see later on, to talk about light bulbs and fuel efficiency. 

The significance of the NAFTA signing was indeed historic, tragically so. 
Because if the environmental movement had not been so agreeable, NAFTA might 
have been blocked or renegotiated to set a different kind of precedent. A new trade 
architecture could have been built that did not actively sabotage the fragile global 
climate change consensus. Instead — as had been the promise and hope of the 1992 
Rio Earth Summit — this new architecture could have been grounded in the need to 
fight poverty and reduce emissions at the same time. So for example, trade access 
to developing countries could have been tied to transfers of resources and green 
technology so that critical new electricity and transit infrastructure was low carbon 
from the outset. And the deals could have been written to ensure that any measures 
taken to support renewable energy would not be penalized and, in fact, could be 


rewarded. The global economy might not have grown as quickly as it did, but it 
also would not be headed rapidly off the climate cliff. 

The errors of this period cannot be undone, but it is not too late for a new kind 
of climate movement to take up the fight against so-called free trade and build this 
needed architecture now. That doesn't — and never did — mean an end to economic 
exchange across borders. It does, however, mean a far more thoughtful and 
deliberate approach to why we trade and whom it serves. Encouraging the frenetic 
and indiscriminate consumption of essentially disposable products can no longer 
be the system's goal. Goods must once again be made to last, and the use of energy- 
intensive long-haul transport will need to be rationed — reserved for those cases 
where goods cannot be produced locally or where local production is more carbon- 
intensive. (For example, growing food in greenhouses in cold parts of the United 
States is often more energy intensive than growing it in warmer regions and 


shipping it by light rail.) 

According to liana Solomon, trade analyst for the Sierra Club, this is not a fight 
that the climate movement can avoid. "In order to combat climate change, there's 
a real need to start localizing our economies again, and thinking about how and 
what we're purchasing and how it' s produced. And the most basic rule of trade law 
is you can't privilege domestic over foreign. So how do you tackle the idea of 
needing to incentivize local economies, tying together local green jobs policies 
with clean energy policies, when that is just a no-go in trade policy? ... If we don't 
think about how the economy is structured, then we're actually never going to the 


real root of the problem." 

These kinds of economic reforms would be good news — for unemployed 
workers, for farmers unable to compete with cheap imports, for communities that 
have seen their manufacturers move offshore and their local businesses replaced 
with big box stores. And all of these constituencies would be needed to fight for 
these policies, since they represent the reversal of the thirty-year trend of removing 
every possible limit on corporate power. 

From Frenetic Expansion to Steady States 

Challenging free trade orthodoxy is a heavy lift in our political culture; anything 
that has been in place for that long takes on an air of inevitability. But, critical as 
these shifts are, they are not enough to lower emissions in time. To do that, we will 
need to confront a logic even more entrenched than free trade — the logic of 


indiscriminate economic growth. This idea has understandably inspired a good 
deal of resistance among more liberal climate watchers, who insist that the task is 
merely to paint our current growth-based economic model green, so it's worth 
examining the numbers behind the claim. 

It is Kevin Anderson of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, and 
one of Britain's top climate experts, who has most forcefully built the case that our 
growth-based economic logic is now in fundamental conflict with atmospheric 
limits. Addressing everyone from the U.K. Department for International 
Development to the Manchester City Council, Anderson has spent more than a 
decade patiently translating the implications of the latest climate science to 
politicians, economists, and campaigners. In clear and understandable language, 
the spiky-haired former mechanical engineer (who used to work in the 
petrochemical sector) lays out a rigorous road map for cutting our emissions down 
to a level that provides a decent shot at keeping global temperature rise below 2 
degrees Celsius. 

But in recent years Anderson's papers and slide shows have become more 
alarming. Under titles such as "Climate Change: Going Beyond 
Dangerous . . . Brutal Numbers and Tenuous Hope," he points out that the chances 
of staying within anything like safe temperature levels are diminishing fast. With 
his colleague Alice Bows-Larkin, an atmospheric physicist and climate change 
mitigation expert at the Tyndall Centre, Anderson argues that we have lost so much 
time to political stalling and weak climate policies — all while emissions 
ballooned — that we are now facing cuts so drastic that they challenge the core 


expansionist logic at the heart of our economic system. 

They argue that, if the governments of developed countries want a fifty-fifty 
chance of hitting the agreed-upon international target of keeping warming below 
2 degrees Celsius, and if reductions are to respect any kind of equity principle 
between rich and poor nations, then wealthy countries need to start cutting their 
greenhouse gas emissions by something like 8 to 10 percent a year — and they need 
to start right now. The idea that such deep cuts are required used to be controversial 
in the mainstream climate community, where the deadlines for steep reductions 
always seemed to be far off in the future (an 80 percent cut by 2050, for instance). 
But as emissions have soared and as tipping points loom, that is changing rapidly. 
Even Yvo de Boer, who held the U.N.'s top climate position until 2009, remarked 
recently that "the only way" negotiators "can achieve a 2 -degree goal is to shut 


down the whole global economy." 


That is a severe overstatement, yet it underlines Anderson and Bows-Larkin's 
point that we cannot achieve 8 to 10 percent annual cuts with the array of modest 
carbon-pricing or green tech solutions usually advocated by Big Green. These 
measures will certainly help, but they are simply not enough. That's because an 8 
to 10 percent drop in emissions, year after year, is virtually unprecedented since 
we started powering our economies with coal. In fact, cuts above 1 percent per 
year "have historically been associated only with economic recession or 
upheaval," as the economist Nicholas Stern put it in his 2006 report for the British 

Even after the Soviet Union collapsed, reductions of this duration and depth did 
not happen (the former Soviet countries experienced average annual reductions of 
roughly 5 percent over a period of ten years). Nor did this level of reduction happen 
beyond a single-year blip after Wall Street crashed in 2008. Only in the immediate 
aftermath of the great market crash of 1929 did the United States see emissions 
drop for several consecutive years by more than 10 percent annually, but that was 
the worst economic crisis of modern times. 52 

If we are to avoid that kind of carnage while meeting our science-based 
emissions targets, carbon reduction must be managed carefully through what 
Anderson and Bows-Larkin describe as "radical and immediate de-growth 


strategies in the US, EU and other wealthy nations." 

Now, I realize that this can all sound apocalyptic — as if reducing emissions 
requires economic crises that result in mass suffering. But that seems so only 
because we have an economic system that fetishizes GDP growth above all else, 
regardless of the human or ecological consequences, while failing to place value 
on those things that most of us cherish above all — a decent standard of living, a 
measure of future security, and our relationships with one another. So what 
Anderson and Bows-Larkin are really saying is that there is still time to avoid 
catastrophic warming, but not within the rules of capitalism as they are currently 
constructed. Which is surely the best argument there has ever been for changing 
those rules. 

Rather than pretending that we can solve the climate crisis without rocking the 
economic boat, Anderson and Bows-Larkin argue, the time has come to tell the 
truth, to "liberate the science from the economics, finance and astrology, stand by 
the conclusions however uncomfortable ... we need to have the audacity to think 


differently and conceive of alternative futures." 

Interestingly, Anderson says that when he presents his radical findings in climate 
circles, the core facts are rarely disputed. What he hears most often are confessions 


from colleagues that they have simply given up hope of meeting the 2 degree 
temperature target, precisely because reaching it would require such a profound 
challenge to economic growth. "This position is shared by many senior scientists 


and economists advising government," Anderson reports. 

In other words, changing the earth's climate in ways that will be chaotic and 
disastrous is easier to accept than the prospect of changing the fundamental, 
growth-based, profit-seeking logic of capitalism. We probably shouldn't be 
surprised that some climate scientists are a little spooked by the radical 
implications of their own research. Most of them were quietly measuring ice cores, 
running global climate models, and studying ocean acidification, only to discover, 
as Australian climate expert and author Clive Hamilton puts it, that in breaking the 
news of the depth of our collective climate failure, they "were unwittingly 
destabilizing the political and social order." 

Nonetheless, that order has now been destabilized, which means that the rest of 
us are going to have to quickly figure out how to turn "managed degrowth" into 
something that looks a lot less like the Great Depression and a lot more like what 
some innovative economic thinkers have taken to calling "The Great Transition." 

Over the past decade, many boosters of green capitalism have tried to gloss over 
the clashes between market logic and ecological limits by touting the wonders of 
green tech, or the "decoupling" of environmental impacts from economic activity. 
They paint a picture of a world that can continue to function pretty much as it does 
now, but in which our power will come from renewable energy and all of our 
various gadgets and vehicles will become so much more energy-efficient that we 
can consume away without worrying about the impact. 

If only humanity' s relationship with natural resources was that simple. While it 
is true that renewable technologies hold tremendous promise to lower emissions, 
the kinds of measures that would do so on the scale we need involve building vast 
new electricity grids and transportation systems, often from the ground up. Even 
if we started construction tomorrow, it would realistically take many years, 
perhaps decades, before the new systems were up and running. Moreover, since 
we don't yet have economies powered by clean energy, all that green construction 
would have to burn a lot of fossil fuels in the interim — a necessary process, but 
one that wouldn't lower our emissions fast enough. Deep emission cuts in the 
wealthy nations have to start immediately. That means that if we wait for what 


Bows-Larkin describes as the "whiz -bang technologies" to come online "it will be 


too little too late." 

So what to do in the meantime? Well, we do what we can. And what we can 
do — what doesn't require a technological and infrastructure revolution — is to 
consume less, right away. Policies based on encouraging people to consume less 
are far more difficult for our current political class to embrace than policies that 
are about encouraging people to consume green. Consuming green just means 
substituting one power source for another, or one model of consumer goods for a 
more efficient one. The reason we have placed all of our eggs in the green tech and 
green efficiency basket is precisely because these changes are safely within market 
logic — indeed, they encourage us to go out and buy more new, efficient, green cars 
and washing machines. 

Consuming less, however, means changing how much energy we actually use: 
how often we drive, how often we fly, whether our food has to be flown to get to 
us, whether the goods we buy are built to last or to be replaced in two years, how 
large our homes are. And these are the sorts of policies that have been neglected 
so far. For instance, as researchers Rebecca Willis and Nick Eyre argue in a report 
for the U.K.'s Green Alliance, despite the fact that groceries represent roughly 12 
percent of greenhouse gas emissions in Britain, "there is virtually no government 
policy which is aimed at changing the way we produce, incentivising farmers for 
low energy farming, or how we consume, incentivising consumption of local and 
seasonal food." Similarly, "there are incentives to drive more efficient cars, but 


very little is done to discourage car dependent settlement patterns." 

Plenty of people are attempting to change their daily lives in ways that do reduce 
their consumption. But if these sorts of demand-side emission reductions are to 
take place on anything like the scale required, they cannot be left to the lifestyle 
decisions of earnest urbanites who like going to farmers' markets on Saturday 
afternoons and wearing up-cycled clothing. We will need comprehensive policies 
and programs that make low-carbon choices easy and convenient for everyone. 
Most of all, these policies need to be fair, so that the people already struggling to 
cover the basics are not being asked to make additional sacrifice to offset the 
excess consumption of the rich. That means cheap public transit and clean light 
rail accessible to all; affordable, energy-efficient housing along those transit lines; 
cities planned for high-density living; bike lanes in which riders aren't asked to 
risk their lives to get to work; land management that discourages sprawl and 
encourages local, low-energy forms of agriculture; urban design that clusters 
essential services like schools and health care along transit routes and in 


pedestrian-friendly areas; programs that require manufacturers to be responsible 
for the electronic waste they produce, and to radically reduce built-in redundancies 
and obsolescences.^ 2 

And as hundreds of millions gain access to modern energy for the first time, 
those who are consuming far more energy than they need would have to consume 
less. How much less? Climate change deniers like to claim that environmentalists 
want to return us to the Stone Age. The truth is that if we want to live within 
ecological limits, we would need to return to a lifestyle similar to the one we had 
in the 1970s, before consumption levels went crazy in the 1980s. Not exactly the 
various forms of hardship and deprivation evoked at Heartland conferences. As 
Kevin Anderson explains: "We need to give newly industrializing countries in the 
world the space to develop and improve the welfare and well-being of their people. 
This means more cuts in energy use by the developed world. It also means lifestyle 
changes which will have most impact on the wealthy.... We've done this in the 
past. In the 1960s and 1970s we enjoyed a healthy and moderate lifestyle and we 
need to return to this to keep emissions under control. It is a matter of the well-off 
20 percent in a population taking the largest cuts. A more even society might result 
and we would certainly benefit from a lower carbon and more sustainable way of 

There is no doubt that these types of policies have countless benefits besides 
lower emissions. They encourage civic space, physical activity, community 
building, as well as cleaner air and water. They also do a huge amount to reduce 
inequality, since it is low-income people, often people of color, who benefit most 
from improvements in public housing and public transit. And if strong living-wage 
and hire-local provisions were included in transition plans, they could also benefit 
most from the jobs building and running those expanded services, while becoming 
less dependent on jobs in dirty industries that have been disproportionately 
concentrated in low-income communities of color. 

As Phaedra Ellis-Lamkins of the environmental justice organization Green for 
All puts it, "The tools we use to combat climate change are the same tools we can 
use to change the game for low-income Americans and people of color. . . . We need 
Congress to make the investments necessary to upgrade and repair our crumbling 
infrastructure — from building seawalls that protect shoreline communities to 
fixing our storm-water systems. Doing so will create family- sustaining, local jobs. 
Improving our storm-water infrastructure alone would put 2 million Americans to 
work. We need to make sure that people of color are a part of the business 
community and workforce building these new systems."^ 


Another way of thinking about this is that what is needed is a fundamental 
reordering of the component parts of Gross Domestic Product. GDP is traditionally 
understood to consist ofconsumption plus investment plus government 
spending plus net exports. The free market capitalism of the past three decades has 
put the emphasis particularly on consumption and trade. But as we remake our 
economies to stay within our global carbon budget, we need to see less 
consumption (except among the poor), less trade (as we relocalize our economies), 
and less private investment in producing for excessive consumption. These 
reductions would be offset by increased government spending, and increased 
public and private investment in the infrastructure and alternatives needed to 
reduce our emissions to zero. Implicit in all of this is a great deal more 
redistribution, so that more of us can live comfortably within the planet's capacity. 

Which is precisely why, when climate change deniers claim that global warming 
is a plot to redistribute wealth, it's not (only) because they are paranoid. It's also 
because they are paying attention. 

Growing the Caring Economy, Shrinking the Careless One 

A great deal of thought in recent years has gone into how reducing our use of 
material resources could be managed in ways that actually improve quality of life 
overall — what the French call "selective degrowth." Policies like luxury taxes 
could be put in place to discourage wasteful consumption.^ 2 The money raised 
could be used to support those parts of our economies that are already low-carbon 
and therefore do not need to contract. Obviously a huge number of jobs would be 
created in the sectors that are part of the green transition — in mass transit, 
renewable energy, weatherization, and ecosystem restoration. And those sectors 
that are not governed by the drive for increased yearly profit (the public sector, co- 
ops, local businesses, nonprofits) would expand their share of overall economic 
activity, as would those sectors with minimal ecological impact (such as the 
caregiving professions, which tend to be occupied by women and people of color 
and therefore underpaid). "Expanding our economies in these directions has all 
sorts of advantages," Tim Jackson, an economist at the University of Surrey and 
author of Prosperity Without Growth, has written. "In the first place, the time spent 
by these professions directly improves the quality of our lives. Making them more 
and more efficient is not, after a certain point, actually desirable. What sense does 


it make to ask our teachers to teach ever bigger classes? Our doctors to treat more 


and more patients per hour?" 

There could be other benefits too, like shorter work hours, in part to create more 
jobs, but also because overworked people have less time to engage in low- 
consumption activities like gardening and cooking (because they are just too busy). 
Indeed, a number of researchers have analyzed the very concrete climate benefits 
of working less. John Stutz, a senior fellow at the Boston-based Tellus Institute, 
envisions that "hours of paid work and income could converge worldwide at 
substantially lower levels than is seen in the developed countries today." If 
countries aimed for somewhere around three to four days a week, introduced 
gradually over a period of decades, he argues, it could offset much of the emissions 


growth projected through 2030 while improving quality of life. 

Many degrowth and economic justice thinkers also call for the introduction of a 
basic annual income, a wage given to every person, regardless of income, as a 
recognition that the system cannot provide jobs for everyone and that it is 
counterproductive to force people to work in jobs that simply fuel consumption. 
As Alyssa Battistoni, an editor at the joumalJacobin, writes, "While making 
people work shitty jobs to 'earn' a living has always been spiteful, it's now starting 
to seem suicidal." 65 

A basic income that discourages shitty work (and wasteful consumption) would 
also have the benefit of providing much-needed economic security in the front-line 
communities that are being asked to sacrifice their health so that oil companies can 
refine tar sands oil or gas companies can drill another fracking well. Nobody wants 
to have their water contaminated or have their kids suffer from asthma. But 
desperate people can be counted on to do desperate things — which is why we all 
have a vested interest in taking care of one another so that many fewer 
communities are faced with those impossible choices. That means rescuing the 
idea of a safety net that ensures that everyone has the basics covered: health care, 
education, food, and clean water. Indeed, fighting inequality on every front and 
through multiple means must be understood as a central strategy in the battle 
against climate change. 

This kind of carefully planned economy holds out the possibility of much more 
humane, fulfilling lifestyles than the vast majority of us are experiencing under our 
current system, which is what makes the idea of a massive social movement 
coalescing behind such demands a real possibility. But these policies are also the 
most politically challenging. 


Unlike encouraging energy efficiency, the measures we must take to secure a 
just, equitable, and inspiring transition away from fossil fuels clash directly with 
our reigning economic orthodoxy at every level. As we will see, such a shift breaks 
all the ideological rules — it requires visionary long-term planning, tough 
regulation of business, higher levels of taxation for the affluent, big public sector 
expenditure, and in many cases reversals of core privatizations in order to give 
communities the power to make the changes they desire. In short, it means 
changing everything about how we think about the economy so that our pollution 
doesn't change everything about our physical world. 

~ China has of course emerged as the world's dominant supplier of inexpensive modules, and in that role 
has helped to drive dramatic drops in solar prices. It has also flooded the market with cheap panels in recent 
years, contributing to a global oversupply that has outpaced demand. 

" And they don't let developing countries like China and India off the hook. According to their projections, 
developing countries can have just one more decade to continue to increase their emissions to aid their 
efforts to pull themselves out of poverty while switching over to green energy sources. By 2025, they would 
need to be cutting emissions "at an unprecedented 7 per cent" a year as well. 

" A law passed by the European Parliament that would require that all cell phone manufacturers offer a 
common battery charger is a small step in the right direction. Similarly, requiring that electronics 
manufacturers use recycled metals like copper could save a great many communities from one of the most 
toxic mining processes in the world. 

" In French, "decroissance" has the double meaning of challenging both growth, croissance, and croire, to 
believe — invoking the idea of choosing not to believe in the fiction of perpetual growth on a finite planet. 




Overcoming the Ideological Blocks to the Next Economy 

"We have no option but to reinvent mobility ... much of India still takes 
the bus, walks or cycles — in many cities as much as 20 percent of the 
population bikes. We do this because we are poor. Now the challenge is 
to reinvent city planning so that we can do this as we become rich." 

— Sunita Narain, director general, Centre for Science and Environment, 20 13 1 

"The lady in the Rolls-Royce car is more damaging to morale than a fleet 
of Goring's bombing-planes." 


-George Orwell, The Lion and the Unicorn, 1941 

It was a tight vote but on September 22, 2013, residents of Germany's second 
largest city decided to take their power back. On that day, 50.9 percent of 
Hamburg's voters cast their ballots in favor of putting their electricity, gas, and 
heating grids under the control of the city, reversing a wave of corporate sell-offs 


that took place over a decade earlier. 

It's a process that has been given a few clunky names, including "re- 
municipalization" and "re-communalization." But the people involved tend to 
simply refer to their desire for "local power." 

The Our Hamburg-Our Grid coalition made a series of persuasive arguments in 
favor of taking back the utilities. A locally controlled energy system would be 
concerned with public interests, not profits. Residents would have greater 
democratic say in their energy system, they argued, rather than having the 
decisions that affect them made in distant boardrooms. Andmoney earned in the 
sale of energy would be returned to the city, rather than lost to the shareholders of 
multinationals that had control over the grids at the time — a definite plus during a 


time of relentless public austerity. "For people it's self-evident that goods on which 
everybody is dependent should belong to the public," campaign organizer Wiebke 


Hansen explained in an interview. 

There was something else driving the campaign as well. Many of Hamburg's 
residents wanted to be part of Energiewende: the fast- spreading transition to green, 
renewable energy that was sweeping the country, with nearly 25 percent of 
Germany's electricity in 2013 coming from renewables, dominated by wind and 
solar but also including some biogas and hydro — up from around 6 percent in 
2000. In comparison, wind and solar made up just 4 percent of total U.S. electricity 
generation in 2013. The cities of Frankfurt and Munich, which had never sold off 
their energy grids, had already joined the transition and pledged to move to 100 
percent renewable energy by 2050 and 2025, respectively. But Hamburg and 
Berlin, which had both gone the privatization route, were lagging behind. And this 
was a central argument for proponents of taking back Hamburg's grid: it would 
allow them to get off coal and nuclear and go green." 

Much has been written about Germany's renewable energy transition — 
particularly the speed at which it is being achieved, as well as the ambition of its 
future targets (the country is aiming for 55-60 percent renewables by 2035)." The 
weaknesses of the program have also been hotly debated, particularly the question 
of whether the decision to phase out nuclear energy has led to a resurgence of coal 
(more on that next chapter). 

In all of this analysis, however, scarce attention has been paid to one key factor 
that has made possible what may be the world's most rapid shift to wind and solar 
power: the fact that in hundreds of cities and towns across the country, citizens 
have voted to take their energy grids back from the private corporations that 
purchased them. As Anna Leidreiter, a climate campaigner with the World Future 
Council, observed after the Hamburg vote, "This marks a clear reversal to the 
neoliberal policies of the 1990s, when large numbers of German municipalities 
sold their public services to large corporations as money was needed to prop up 


city budgets." 

Nor is this some small trend. According to a Bloomberg report, "More than 70 
new municipal utilities have started up since 2007, and public operators have taken 
over more than 200 concessions to run energy grids from private companies in that 
time." And though there are no national statistics, the German Association of Local 
Utilities believes many more cities and towns than that have taken back control 
over their grids from outside corporations. 


Most surprising has been the force with which large parts of the German public 
have turned against energy privatization. In 2013 in Berlin 83 percent of 
participating voters cast their ballots in favor of switching to a publicly owned 
power utility based eventually on 100 percent renewable energy. Not enough 
people turned out to vote for the decision to be binding (though the campaign came 
very close), but the referendum made public opinion so clear that campaigners are 
still pushing for a nonprofit cooperative to take over the grid when the current 


contract ends. 

Energy privatization reversals — linked specifically to a desire for renewable 
energy — have started to spread beyond Germany in recent years, including to the 
United States. For instance, in the mid-2000s, residents and local officials in the 
liberal city of Boulder, Colorado, began lobbying their privatized power utility to 
move away from coal and toward renewable energy. The company, the 
Minneapolis-based Xcel Energy, wasn't particularly interested, so a coalition of 
environmentalists and an energetic youth group called New Era Colorado came to 
the same conclusion as the voters in Germany: they had to take their grid back. 
Steve Fenberg of New Era explains, "We have one of the most carbon-intensive 
energy supplies in the country, and [Boulder] is an environmentally minded 
community, and we wanted to change that. We realized that we had no control 
over that unless we controlled the energy supply." 1 ^ 

In 2011, despite being outspent by Xcel by ten to one, the pro-renewables 
coalition narrowly won two ballot measures that called on the city of Boulder to 
consider buying back its power system. 11 The vote did not immediately put the 
power utility under public control, but it gave the city the authority and financing 
to seriously consider the option (which it is currently doing). The coalition won 
another crucial vote in 2013 against an Xcel- supported initiative that would have 
blocked the formation of a new public utility, this time by a wide majority. 

These were historic votes: other cities had reversed earlier privatizations because 
they were unhappy with the quality of the service or the pricing under the private 
operator. But this was the first time a U.S. city was taking these steps "for the sole 
purpose of reducing its impact on the planet," according to Tim Hillman, a 
Boulder-based environmental engineer. Indeed the pro-public forces had put 
fighting climate change front and center in their campaigns, accusing Xcel of being 
just another fossil fuel company standing in the way of much needed climate 
action. And according to Fenberg, their vision reaches beyond Boulder. "We want 
to show the world that you can actually power a city responsibly and not pay a lot 


for it," he now says. "We want this to be a model, not just do this one cool thing 


for ourselves in our community." 

What stands out about Boulder's experience is that, unlike some of the German 
campaigns, it did not begin with opposition to privatization. Boulder's local power 
movement began with the desire to switch to clean energy, regardless of who was 
providing it. Yet in the process of trying to achieve that goal, these residents 
discovered that they had no choice but to knock down one of the core ideological 
pillars of the free market era: that privately run services are always superior to 
public ones. It was an accidental discovery very similar to the one Ontario residents 
made when it became clear that their green energy transition was being 
undermined by free trade commitments signed long ago. 

Though rarely mentioned in climate policy discussions, there is a clear and 
compelling relationship between public ownership and the ability of communities 
to get off dirty energy. Many of the countries with the highest commitments to 
renewable energy are ones that have managed to keep large parts of their electricity 
sectors in public (and often local) hands, including the Netherlands, Austria, and 
Norway. In the U.S., some of the cities that have set the most ambitious green 
energy targets also happen to have public utilities. Austin, Texas, for instance, is 
ahead of schedule for meeting its target of 35 percent renewable power by 2020, 
and Sacramento, California's, utility is gearing up to beat a similar target and has 
set a pioneering goal of reducing emissions by 90 percent by mid-century. On the 
other hand, according to John Farrell, senior researcher at the Minneapolis-based 
Institute for Local Self-Reliance, the attitude of most private players has been, 
"we're going to take the money that we make from selling fossil fuels, and use it 


to lobby as hard as we can against any change to the way that we do business." 

This does not mean that private power monopolies will not offer their customers 
the option of purchasing power from renewables as part of a mix that includes 
fossil fuels: many do offer that choice, usually at a premium price. And some offer 
renewable power exclusively, though this is invariably from large-scale 
hydropower. Nor is it the case that public power will always willingly go green — 
there are plenty of publicly owned power utilities that remain hooked on coal and 
are highly resistant to change. 

However, many communities are discovering that while public utilities often 
need to be pressured hard to make emission reductions a priority (a process that 
may require fundamental reform to make them more democratic and accountable 
to their constituents) private energy monopolies offer no such option. Answerable 
chiefly to their shareholders and driven by the need for high quarterly profits, 


private companies will voluntarily embrace renewables only if it won't impact 
their earnings or if they are forced to by law. If renewables are seen as less 
profitable, at least in the short term, these bottom- line companies simply won't 
make the switch. Which is why, as German antinuclear activist Ralf Gauger puts 
it, more and more people are coming to the conclusion that, "Energy supply and 
environmental issues should not be left in the hands of private for-profit 



This does not mean that the private sector should be excluded from a transition 
to renewables: solar and wind companies are already bringing clean energy to 
many millions of consumers around the world, including through innovative 
leasing models that allow customers to avoid the up-front costs of purchasing their 
own rooftop solar panels. But despite these recent successes, the market has proved 
extremely volatile and according to projections from the International Energy 
Agency, investment levels in clean energy need to quadruple by 2030 if we are to 
meet emission targets aimed at staying below 2 degrees Celsius of warming. 15 

It's easy to mistake a thriving private market in green energy for a credible 
climate action plan, but, though related, they are not the same thing. It's entirely 
possible to have a booming market in renewables, with a whole new generation of 
solar and wind entrepreneurs growing very wealthy — and for our countries to still 
fall far short of lowering emissions in line with science in the brief time we have 
left. To be sure of hitting those tough targets, we need systems that are more 
reliable than boom-and-bust private markets. And as a 2013 paper produced by a 
research team at the University of Greenwich explains, "Historically, the private 
sector has played little role in investing in renewable energy generation. 
Governments have been responsible for nearly all such investments. Current 
experience from around the world, including the markets of Europe, also shows 
that private companies and electricity markets cannot deliver investments in 
renewables on the scale required." 

Citing various instances of governments turning to the public sector to drive 
their transitions (including the German experience), as well as examples of large 
corporate-driven renewable projects that were abandoned by their investors 
midstream, the Greenwich research team concludes, "An active role for 
government and public sector utilities is thus a far more important condition for 
developing renewable energy than any expensive system of public subsidies for 
markets or private investors." 12 

Sorting out what mechanisms have the best chance of pulling off a dramatic and 
enormously high-stakes energy transition has become particularly pressing of late. 


That's because it is now clear that — at least from a technical perspective — it is 
entirely possible to rapidly switch our energy systems to 100 percent renewables. 
In 2009, Mark Z. Jacobson, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at 
Stanford University, and Mark A. Delucchi, a research scientist at the Institute of 
Transportation Studies at the University of California, Davis, authored a 
groundbreaking, detailed road map for "how 100 percent of the world's energy, 
for all purposes, could be supplied by wind, water and solar resources, by as early 
as 2030." The plan includes not only power generation but also transportation as 
well as heating and cooling. Later published in the joumsilEnergy Policy, the road 
map is one of several credible studies that have come out in recent years that show 
how wealthy countries and regions can shift all, or almost all, of their energy 


infrastructure to renewables within a twenty-to-forty-year time frame. Those 
studies demonstrating the potential for rapid progress include: 

• In Australia, the University of Melbourne's Energy Institute and the nonprofit 

Beyond Zero Emissions have published a blueprint for achieving a 60 percent 


solar and 40 percent wind electricity system in an astonishing ten years. 

• By 2014, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) 
had concluded from its own extensive research into weather patterns that cost- 
effective wind and solar could constitute nearly 60 percent of the U.S. electricity 
system by 2030.- 

• Among more conservative projections, a major 2012 study by the U.S. 

Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory argues that 
wind, solar, and other currently available green technologies could meet 80 


percent of Americans' electricity needs by 2050. 

Most promising of all is new work by a team of researchers at Stanford, led by 
Mark Jacobson (who coauthored the 2009 global plan). In March 2013, they 
published a study in Energy Policy showing that New York state could meet all of 
its power needs with renewables by 2030. Jacobson and his colleagues are 
developing similar plans for every U.S. state, and have already published numbers 
for the country as a whole. "It's absolutely not true that we need natural gas, coal 
or oil — we think it's a myth," he told The New York Times. 

"This really involves a large scale transformation," he says. "It would require an 
effort comparable to the Apollo moon project or constructing the interstate 
highway system. But it is possible, without even having to go to new technologies. 
We really need to just decide collectively that this is the direction we want to head 
as a society." And he is clear on what stands in the way: "The biggest obstacles 


are social and political — what you need is the will to do it." 


In fact it takes more than will: it requires the profound ideological shift already 
discussed. Because our governments have changed dramatically since the days 
when ambitious national projects were conceived and implemented. And the 
imperatives created by the climate crisis are colliding with the dominant logic of 
our time on many other fronts. 

Indeed every time a new, record-breaking natural disaster fills our screens with 
human horror, we have more reminders of how climate change demands that we 
invest in the publicly owned bones of our societies, made brittle by decades of 

Rebuilding, and Reinventing, the Public Sphere 

When I first spotted Nastaran Mohit, she was bundled in a long puffy black coat, 
a white toque pulled halfway over her eyes, barking orders to volunteers gathered 
in an unheated warehouse. "Take a sticky pad and write down what the needs are," 
the fast-talking thirty-year-old was telling a group newly designated as Team 1 . 
"Okay, head on out. Who is Team 2?"- 

It was ten days after Superstorm Sandy made landfall and we were in one of the 
hardest-hit neighborhoods in the Rockaways, a long, narrow strip of seaside 
communities in Queens, New York. The storm waters had receded but hundreds 
of basements were still flooded and power and cell phone service were still out. 
The National Guard patrolled the streets in trucks and Humvees, making sure 
curfew was observed, but when it came to offering help to those stranded in the 
cold and dark, the state and the big aid agencies were largely missing in action. 
(Or, more accurately, they were at the other, wealthier end of the Rockaway 
peninsula, where these organizations and agencies were a strong and helpful 



Seeing this abandonment, thousands of mostly young volunteers had organized 
themselves under the banner "Occupy Sandy" (many were veterans of Occupy 
Wall Street) and were distributing clothes, blankets, and hot food to residents of 
neglected areas. They set up recovery hubs in community centers and churches, 
and went door-to-door in the area's notorious, towering brick housing projects, 
some as high as twenty-three stories. "Muck" had become a ubiquitous verb, as in 
"Do you need us to come muck out your basement?" If the answer was yes, a team 
of eager twenty-somethings would show up on the doorstep with mops, gloves, 
shovels, and bleach, ready to get the job done. 


Mohit had arrived in the Rockaways to help distribute basic supplies but quickly 
noticed a more pressing need: in some areas, absolutely no one was providing 
health care. And the need was so great, it scared her. Since the 1950s, the 
Rockaways — once a desirable resort destination — had become a dumping ground 
for New York's poor and unwanted: welfare recipients, the elderly, discharged 
mental patients. They were crammed into high-rises, many in a part of the 
peninsula known locally as the "Baghdad of Queens." 

As in so many places like it, public services in the Rockaways had been cut to 
the bone, and then cut some more. Just six months before the storm, Peninsula 
Hospital Center — one of only two hospitals in the area, which served a low-income 
and elderly population — had shut down after the state Department of Health 
refused to step in. Walk-in clinics had attempted to fill the gap but they had flooded 
during the storm and, along with the pharmacies, had not yet reopened. "This is 


just a dead-zone," Mohit sighed. 

So she and friends in Occupy Sandy called all the doctors and nurses they knew 
and asked them to bring in whatever supplies they could. Next, they convinced the 
owner of an old furrier, damaged in the storm, to let them convert his storefront on 
the neighborhood's main drag into a makeshift MASH unit. There, amidst the 
animal pelts hanging from the ceiling, volunteer doctors and nurses began to see 
patients, treat wounds, write prescriptions, and provide trauma counseling. 

There was no shortage of patients; in its first two weeks, Mohit estimated that 
the clinic helped hundreds of people. But on the day I visited, worries were 
mounting about the people still stuck in the high-rises. As volunteers went door- 
to-door distributing supplies in the darkened projects, flashlights strapped to their 
foreheads, they were finding alarming numbers of sick people. Cancer and 
HIV/ AIDS meds had run out, oxygen tanks were empty, diabetics were out of 
insulin, and addicts were in withdrawal. Some people were too sick to brave the 
dark stairwells and multiple flights of stairs to get help; some didn't leave because 
they had nowhere to go and no way to get off the peninsula (subways and buses 
were not operating); others feared that if they left their apartments, their homes 
would be burglarized. And without cell service or power for their TVs, many had 
no idea what was going on outside. 

Most shockingly, residents reported that until Occupy Sandy showed up, no one 
had knocked on their doors since the storm. Not from the Health Department, nor 
the city Housing Authority (responsible for running the projects), nor the big relief 
agencies like the Red Cross. "I was like 'Holy crap,' "Mohit told me. "There was 


just no medical attention at all." Referring to the legendary abandonment of New 


Orleans's poor residents when the city flooded in 2005, she said: "This is Katrina 



The most frustrating part was that even when a pressing health need was 
identified, and even when the volunteer doctors wrote the required prescriptions, 
"we bring it to the pharmacy and the pharmacy is sending it back to us because 
they need insurance information. And then we get as much information as we can 


and we bring it back and they say, 'Now we need their Social Security number.' "~ 
According to a 2009 Harvard Medical School study, as many as 45,000 people 
die annually in the United States because they lack health insurance. As one of the 
study's coauthors pointed out, this works out to about one death every twelve 
minutes. It's unclear how President Obama's stunted 2010 health care law will 
change those numbers, but watching the insurance companies continue to put 
money before human health in the midst of the worst storm in New York' s history 
cast this preexisting injustice in a new, more urgent light. "We need universal 
health care," Mohit declared. "There is no other way around it. There is absolutely 
no other way around it." Anyone who disagreed should come to the disaster zone, 
she said, because this "is a perfect situation for people to really examine how 


nonsensical, inhumane, and barbaric this system is." 

The word "apocalypse" derives from the Greek apokalypsis, which means 
"something uncovered" or revealed. Besides the need for a dramatically better 
health care system, there was much else uncovered and revealed when the 
floodwaters retreated in New York that October. The disaster revealed how 
dangerous it is to be dependent on centralized forms of energy that can be knocked 
out in one blow. It revealed the life- and- death cost of social isolation, since it was 
the people who did not know their neighbors, or who were frightened of them, who 
were most at risk. Meanwhile, it was the tightest-knit communities, where 
neighbors took responsibility for one another's safety, that were best able to 
literally weather the storm. 

The disaster also revealed the huge risks that come with deep inequality, since 
the people who were already the most vulnerable — undocumented workers, the 
formerly incarcerated, people in public housing — suffered most and longest. In 
low-income neighborhoods, homes filled not only with water but with heavy 
chemicals and detergents — the legacy of systemic environmental racism that 
allowed toxic industries to build in areas inhabited mostly by people of color. 
Public housing projects that had been left to decay — while the city bided its time 
before selling them off to developers — turned into death traps, their ancient 
plumbing and electrical systems giving way completely. As Aria Doe, executive 


director of the Action Center for Education and Community Development in the 
Rockaways, put it, the peninsula's poorest residents "were six feet under" before 


the storm even hit. "Right now, they're seven or eight feet under." 

All around the world, the hard realities of a warming world are crashing up against 
the brutal logic of austerity, revealing just how untenable it is to starve the public 
sphere at the very moment we need it most. The floods that hit the U.K. in the 
winter of 2013-2014, for instance, would have been trying for any government: 
thousands of homes and workplaces were inundated, hundreds of thousands of 
houses and other buildings lost power, farmland was submerged, several rail lines 
were down for weeks, all combining to create what one top official called an 
"almost unparalleled natural disaster." This as the country was still reeling from a 


previous devastating storm that had struck just two months before. 

But the floods were particularly awkward for the coalition government led by 
Conservative prime minister David Cameron because, in the three years prior, it 
had gutted the Environment Agency (EA), which was responsible for dealing with 
flooding. Since 2009, at least 1,150 jobs had been lost at the agency, with as many 
as 1,700 more on the chopping block, adding up to approximately a quarter of its 
total workforce. In 2012 The Guardian had revealed that "nearly 300 flood defence 
schemes across England [had] been left unbuilt due to government budget cuts." 
The head of the Environment Agency had stated plainly during the most recent 


round of cuts that "Flood risk maintenance will be impacted." 

Cameron is no climate change denier, which is what made it all the more 
incredible that he had hobbled the agency responsible for protecting the public 
from rising waters and more ferocious storms, two well-understood impacts of 
climate change. And his praise of the good works of the staff that had survived his 
axe provided cold comfort. "It is a disgrace that the Government is happy to put 
cost cutting before public safety and protecting family homes," announced the 
trade union representing EA workers in a scathing statement. "They can't have it 
both ways, praising the sterling work of members in the Agency in one breath, and 


in the next breath announcing further damaging cuts." 

During good times, it's easy to deride "big government" and talk about the 
inevitability of cutbacks. But during disasters, most everyone loses their free 
market religion and wants to know that their government has their backs. And if 
there is one thing we can be sure of, it's that extreme weather events like 
Superstorm Sandy, Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, and the British floods — 


disasters that, combined, pummeled coastlines beyond recognition, ravaged 
millions of homes, and killed many thousands — are going to keep coming. 

Over the course of the 1970s, there were 660 reported disasters around the world, 
including droughts, floods, extreme temperature events, wildfires, and storms. In 
the 2000s, there were 3,322 — a fivefold boost. That is a staggering increase in just 
over thirty years, and clearly global warming cannot be said to have "caused" all 
of it. But the climate signal is also clear. "There's no question that climate change 
has increased the frequency of certain types of extreme weather events," climate 
scientist Michael Mann told me in an interview, "including drought, intense 
hurricanes, and super typhoons, the frequency and intensity and duration of heat 
waves, and potentially other types of extreme weather though the details are still 
being debated within the scientific community."^ 

Yet these are the same three decades in which almost every government in the 
world has been steadily chipping away at the health and resilience of the public 
sphere. And it is this neglect that, over and over again, turns natural disasters into 
unnatural catastrophes. Storms burst through neglected levees. Heavy rain causes 
decrepit sewer systems to back up and overflow. Wildfires rage out of control for 
lack of workers and equipment to fight them (in Greece, fire departments can't 
afford spare tires for their trucks driving into forest blazes). Emergency responders 
are missing in action for days after a major hurricane. Bridges and tunnels, left in 
a state of disrepair, collapse under the added pressure. 

The costs of coping with increasing weather extremes are astronomical. In the 
United States, each major disaster seems to cost taxpayers upward of a billion 
dollars. The cost of Superstorm Sandy is estimated at $65 billion. And that was 
just one year after Hurricane Irene caused around $10 billion in damage, just one 
episode in a year that saw fourteen billion- dollar disasters in the U.S. alone. 
Globally, 2011 holds the title as the costliest year ever for disasters, with total 
damages reaching at least $380 billion. And with policymakers still locked in the 
vise grip of austerity logic, these rising emergency expenditures are being offset 
with cuts to everyday public spending, which will make societies even more 


vulnerable during the next disaster — a classic vicious cycle. 

It was never a good idea to neglect the foundations of our societies in this way. 
In the context of climate change, however, that decision looks suicidal. There are 
many important debates to be had about the best way to respond to climate 
change — storm walls or ecosystem restoration? Decentralized renewables, 
industrial scale wind power combined with natural gas, or nuclear power? Small- 
scale organic farms or industrial food systems? There is, however, no scenario in 


which we can avoid wartime levels of spending in the public sector — not if we are 
serious about preventing catastrophic levels of warming, and minimizing the 
destructive potential of the coming storms. 

It' s no mystery where that public money needs to be spent. Much of it should go 
to the kinds of ambitious emission-reducing projects already discussed — the smart 
grids, the light rail, the citywide composting systems, the building retrofits, the 
visionary transit systems, the urban redesigns to keep us from spending half our 
lives in traffic jams. The private sector is ill suited to taking on most of these large 
infrastructure investments: if the services are to be accessible, which they must be 
in order to be effective, the profit margins that attract private players simply aren't 

Transit is a good example. In March 2014, when air pollution in French cities 
reached dangerously high levels, officials in Paris made a snap decision to 
discourage car use by making public transit free for three days. Obviously private 
operators would strenuously resist such measures. And yet by all rights, our transit 
systems should be responding with the same kind of urgency to dangerously high 
levels of atmospheric carbon. Rather than allowing subway and bus fares to rise 
while service erodes, we need to be lowering prices and expanding services — 
regardless of the costs. 

Public dollars also need to go to the equally important, though less glamorous 
projects and services that will help us prepare for the coming heavy weather. That 
includes things like hiring more firefighters and improving storm barriers. And it 
means coming up with new, nonprofit disaster insurance programs so that people 
who have lost everything to a hurricane or a forest fire are not left at the mercy of 
a private insurance industry that is already adapting to climate change by avoiding 
payouts and slapping victims with massive rate increases. According to Amy Bach, 
cofounder of the San Francisco-based advocacy group United Policyholders, 
disaster insurance is becoming "very much like health insurance. We're going to 
have to increasingly take the profit motive out of the system so that it operates 
efficiently and effectively, but without generating obscene executive salaries and 
bonuses and shareholder returns. Because it's not going to be a sustainable model. 
A publicly traded insurance company in the face of climate change is not a 
sustainable business model for the end user, the consumer." It's that or a disaster 
capitalism free-for-all; those are the choices. 

These types of improvements are of course in far greater demand in developing 
countries like the Philippines, Kenya, and Bangladesh that are already facing some 
of the most severe climate impacts. Hundreds of billions of dollars are urgently 


needed to build seawalls; storage and distribution networks for food, water, and 
medicine; early warning systems and shelters for hurricanes, cyclones, and 
tsunamis — as well as public health systems able to cope with increases in climate - 


related diseases like malaria. Though mechanisms to protect against government 
corruption are needed, these countries should not have to spend their health care 
and education budgets on costly disaster insurance plans purchased from 
transnational corporations, as is happening right now. Their people should be 
receiving direct compensation from the countries (and companies) most 
responsible for warming the planet. 

The Polluter Pays 

About now a sensible reader would be asking: how on earth are we going to pay 
for all this? It's the essential question. A 2011 survey by the U.N. Department of 
Economic and Social Affairs looked at how much it would cost for humanity to 
"overcome poverty, increase food production to eradicate hunger without 
degrading land and water resources, and avert the climate change catastrophe." 
The price tag was $1.9 trillion a year for the next forty years — and "at least one 
half of the required investments would have to be realized in developing 



As we all know, public spending is going in the opposite direction almost 
everywhere except for a handful of fast- growing so-called emerging economies. 
In North America and Europe, the economic crisis that began in 2008 is still being 
used as a pretext to slash aid abroad and cut climate programs at home. All over 
Southern Europe, environmental policies and regulations have been clawed back, 
most tragically in Spain, which, facing fierce austerity pressure, drastically cut 
subsidies for renewables projects, sending solar projects and wind farms spiraling 
toward default and closure. The U.K. under David Cameron has also cut supports 
for renewable energy. 

So if we accept that governments are broke, and they're not likely to introduce 
"quantitative easing" (aka printing money) for the climate system as they have for 
the banks, where is the money supposed to come from? Since we have only a few 
short years to dramatically lower our emissions, the only rational way forward is 
to fully embrace the principle already well established in Western law: the polluter 


The fossil fuel companies have known for decades that their core product was 
warming the planet, and yet they have not only failed to adapt to that reality, they 
have actively blocked progress at every turn. Meanwhile, oil and gas companies 
remain some of the most profitable corporations in history, with the top five oil 
companies pulling in $900 billion in profits from 2001 to 2010. ExxonMobil still 
holds the record for the highest corporate profits ever reported in the United States, 
earning $41 billion in 2011 and $45 billion in 2012. These companies are rich, 
quite simply, because they have dumped the cost of cleaning up their mess onto 
regular people around the world. It is this situation that, most fundamentally, needs 
to change. 

And it will not change without strong action. For well over a decade, several of 
the oil majors have claimed to be voluntarily using their profits to invest in a shift 
to renewable energy. In 2000, BP rebranded itself "Beyond Petroleum" and even 
changed its logo to a sunburst, called "the Helios mark after the sun god of ancient 
Greece." ("We are not an oil company," then-chief executive Sir John Browne said 
at the time, explaining that, "We are aware the world wants less carbon-intensive 
fuels. What we want to do is create options.") Chevron, for its part, ran a high- 
profile advertising campaign declaring, "It's time oil companies get behind 
renewables.... We agree." But according to a study by the Center for American 
Progress, just 4 percent of the Big Five's $100 billion in combined profits in 2008 
went to "renewable and alternative energy ventures." Instead, they continue to 
pour their profits into shareholder pockets, outrageous executive pay (Exxon CEO 
Rex Tillerson makes more than $100,000 a day), and new technologies designed 


to extract even dirtier and more dangerous fossil fuels. 

And even as the demand for renewables increases, the percentage the fossil fuel 
companies spend on them keeps shrinking — by 2011, most of the majors were 
spending less than 1 percent of their overall expenditures on alternative energy, 
with Chevron and Shell spending a deeply unimpressive 2.5 percent. In 2014, 
Chevron pulled back even further. According to Bloomberg Businessweek, the 
staff of a renewables division that had almost doubled its target profits was told 
"that funding for the effort would dry up" and was urged "to find jobs elsewhere." 
Chevron also moved to sell off businesses that had developed green projects for 
governments and school districts. As oil industry watcher Antonia Juhasz has 
observed, "You wouldn't know it from their advertising, but the world's major oil 
companies have either entirely divested from alternative energy or significantly 
reduced their investments in favor of doubling down on ever-more risky and 


destructive sources of oil and natural gas."^ 


Given this track record, it's safe to assume that if fossil fuel companies are going 
to help pay for the shift to renewable energy, and for the broader costs of a climate 
destabilized by their pollution, it will be because they are forced to do so by law. 
Just as tobacco companies have been obliged to pay the costs of helping people to 
quit smoking, and BP has had to pay for much of the cleanup of its oil spill in the 
Gulf of Mexico, it is high time for the industry to at least split the bill for the 
climate crisis. And there is mounting evidence that the financial world understands 
that this is coming. In its 2013 annual report on "Global Risks," the World 
Economic Forum (host of the annual superelite gathering in Davos), stated plainly, 
"Although the Alaskan village of Kivalina — which faces being 'wiped out' by the 
changing climate — was unsuccessful in its attempts to file a US$ 400 million 
lawsuit against oil and coal companies, future plaintiffs may be more successful. 
Five decades ago, the U.S. tobacco industry would not have suspected that in 1997 


it would agree to pay $368 billion in health-related damages." But it did. 

The question is: how do we stop fossil fuel profits from continuing to 
hemorrhage into executive paychecks and shareholder pockets — and how do we 
do it soon, before the companies are significantly less profitable or out of business 
because we have moved to a new energy system? As the Global Risks report 
suggests, communities severely impacted by climate change have made several 
attempts to use the courts to sue for damages, but so far they have been 
unsuccessful. A steep carbon tax would be a straightforward way to get a piece of 
the profits, as long as it contained a generous redistributive mechanism — a tax cut 
or income credit — that compensated poor and middle-class consumers for 
increased fuel and heating prices. As Canadian economist Marc Lee points out, 
designed properly, "It is possible to have a progressive carbon tax system that 


reduces inequality as it raises the price of emitting greenhouse gases." An even 
more direct route to getting a piece of those pollution profits would be for 
governments to negotiate much higher royalty rates on oil, gas, and coal extraction, 
with the revenues going to "heritage trust funds" that would be dedicated to 
building the post-fossil fuel future, as well as to helping communities and workers 
adapt to these new realities. 

Fossil fuel corporations can be counted on to resist any new rules that cut into 
their profits, so harsh penalties, including revoking corporate charters, would need 
to be on the table. Companies would threaten to pull out of certain operations, to 
be sure, but once a multinational like Shell has spent billions to build the mines 
and drilling platforms needed to extract fossil fuels, it is unlikely to abandon that 


infrastructure because royalties go up. (Though it will bitterly complain and may 
well seek damages at an investment tribunal.) 

But the extractive industries shouldn't be the only targets of the "polluter pays" 
principle. The U.S. military is by some accounts the largest single consumer of 
petroleum in the world. In 201 1, the Department of Defense released, at minimum, 
56.6 million metric tons of CO2 equivalent into the atmosphere, more than the 


U.S. -based operations of ExxonMobil and Shell combined. So surely the arms 
companies should pay their share. The car companies have plenty to answer for 
too, as do the shipping industry and the airlines. 

Moreover, there is a simple, direct correlation between wealth and emissions — 
more money generally means more flying, driving, boating, and powering of 
multiple homes. One case study of German consumers indicates that the travel 

habits of the most affluent class have an impact on climate 250 percent greater than 


that of their lowest-earning neighbors. 

That means any attempt to tax the extraordinary concentration of wealth at the 
very top of the economic pyramid, as documented so persuasively by Thomas 
Piketty among many others, would — if partially channeled into climate 
financing — effectively make the polluters pay. As journalist and climate and 
energy policy expert Gar Lipow puts it, "We should tax the rich more because it is 
the fair thing to do, and because it will provide a better life for most of us, and a 
more prosperous economy. However, providing money to save civilization and 
reduce the risk of human extinction is another good reason to bill the rich for their 
fair share of taxes." But it must be said that a "polluter pays" principle would have 
to reach beyond the super rich. According to Stephen Pacala, director of the 
Princeton Environmental Institute and codirector of Princeton's Carbon Mitigation 
Initiative, the roughly 500 million richest of us on the planet are responsible for 
about half of all global emissions. That would include the rich in every country in 
the world, notably in countries like China and India, as well significant parts of the 


middle classes in North America and Europe. 

Taken together, there is no shortage of options for equitably coming up with the 
cash to prepare for the coming storms while radically lowering our emissions to 
prevent catastrophic warming. 

Consider the following list, by no means complete: 

• A "low-rate" financial transaction tax — which would hit trades of stocks, 
derivatives, and other financial instruments — could bring in nearly $650 billion 
at the global level each year, according to a 201 1 resolution of the European 


Parliament (and it would have the added bonus of slowing down financial 



• Closing tax havens would yield another windfall. The U.K. -based Tax Justice 
Network estimates that in 2010, the private financial wealth of individuals 
stowed unreported in tax havens around the globe was somewhere between $21 
trillion and $32 trillion. If that money were brought into the light and its earnings 
taxed at a 30 percent rate, it would yield at least $190 billion in income tax 

, 50 

revenue each year. 

• A 1 percent "billionaire's tax," floated by the U.N., could raise $46 billion 


• Slashing the military budgets of each of the top ten military spenders by 25 
percent could free up another $325 billion, using 2012 numbers reported by the 
Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. (Granted, probably the 


toughest sell of all, particularly in the U.S.) 

• A $50 tax per metric ton of CO2 emitted in developed countries would raise an 

estimated $450 billion annually, while a more modest $25 carbon tax would still 
yield $250 billion per year, according to a 201 1 report by the World Bank, the 

International Monetary Fund, and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation 


and Development (OECD), among others. 

• Phasing out fossil fuel subsidies globally would conservatively save governments 

a total $775 billion in a single year, according to a 2012 estimate by Oil Change 


International and the Natural Resources Defense Council. 

If these various measures were taken together, they would raise more than $2 
trillion annually ~ Certainly enough for a very healthy start to finance a Great 
Transition (and avoid a Great Depression). And that doesn't count any royalty 
increases on fossil fuel extraction. Of course, for any of these tax crackdowns to 
work, key governments would have to coordinate their responses so that 
corporations had nowhere to hide — a difficult task, though far from impossible, 
and one frequently bandied about at G20 summits. 

In addition to the simple fact that the money is badly needed, there are practical 
political reasons why "polluter pays" should guide climate financing. As we have 
seen, responding to the climate crisis can offer real benefits to a majority of people, 
but real solutions will also, by definition, require short- and medium-term 
sacrifices and inconveniences. And what we know from past sacrifices made in the 
name of a crisis — most notably via rationing, conservation, and price controls 


during both world wars — is that success depends entirely on a perception of 

In Britain and North America during World War II, for instance, every strata of 
society was required to make do with less, even the very rich. And in fact, though 
overall consumption in the U.K. dropped by 16 percent, caloric intake for the poor 
increased during the war, because the rations provided low-income people with 
more than they could otherwise afford.~There was plenty of cheating and black 
market profiteering, of course, but these programs enjoyed broad-based support 
because they were, at least in theory, fair. The theme of equality pervaded 
government campaigns about these wartime programs: "Fair Shares for All" was 
a key slogan in the U.K, while the U.S. went with "Share and Share Alike" and 


"Produce, Conserve, Share and Play Square." An Office of Price 
Administration pamphlet from 1942 argued that rationing was part of the 
American tradition. "What Is Rationing?" it asked. 

First, let's be sure what rationing is not. It is not starvation, long bread lines, 
shoddy goods. Rather, it is a community plan for dividing fairly the supplies 
we have among all who need them. Second, it is not "un-American." The 
earliest settlers of this country, facing scarcities of food and clothing, pooled 
their precious supplies and apportioned them out to everyone on an equal 
basis. It was an American idea then, and it is an American idea now, to share 
and share alike — to sacrifice, when necessary, but sacrifice together, when 


the country's welfare demands it. 

Governments also made sure that there were very public crackdowns on wealthy 
and well-connected individuals who broke the rules, sending the message that no 
one was exempt. In the U.K., movie stars, as well as corporations like Woolworth 
and Sainsbury, faced prosecution for rations violations. In the United States, cases 
were brought against some of the largest corporations in the country. It was no 
secret that many large U.S. manufacturers disliked the entire rationing system; they 
lobbied against it, because they believed it eroded their brand value. Yet they were 


forced to accept it all the same. 

This perception of fairness — that one set of rules applies to players big and 
small — has been entirely missing from our collective responses to climate change 
thus far. For decades, regular people have been asked to turn off their lights, put 
on sweaters, and pay premium prices for nontoxic cleaning products and renewable 
energy — and then watched as the biggest polluters have been allowed to expand 
their emissions without penalty. This has been the pattern ever since President 
Jimmy Carter addressed the American public in July 1979 about the fact that "too 


many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity 
is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns." He urged 
Americans "for your good and for your nation's security to take no unnecessary 
trips, to use carpools or public transportation whenever you can, to park your car 
one extra day per week, to obey the speed limit, and to set your thermostats to save 
fuel. Every act of energy conservation like this is more than just common sense — 
I tell you it is an act of patriotism." 

The address was initially well received but came to be derided as the "malaise" 
speech and is frequently cited as one of the reasons Carter lost his reelection bid 
to Ronald Reagan. And though he was not talking about climate change but rather 
a broad "crisis of confidence" against a backdrop of energy scarcity, the speech is 
still invoked as proof that any politician who asks voters to sacrifice to solve an 
environmental crisis is on a suicide mission. Indeed this assessment has shaped the 
win-win messaging of environmentalists ever since. 

So it's interesting to note that the late intellectual Christopher Lasch, who was 
one of Carter's key advisors on the infamous speech, was also one of its most 
pointed critics. The author ofThe Culture of Narcissism had strongly urged the 
president to temper his message of personal austerity with assurances of 
fundamental fairness and social justice. As Lasch revealed to an interviewer years 
later, he had told Carter to "put a more populist construction in his indictment of 
American consumerism.... What was needed was a program that called for 
sacrifices all right, but made it clear that the sacrifices would be distributed in an 
equitable fashion." And that, Lasch said, "would mean that those most able to 
make sacrifices would be the ones on whom the sacrifices fell. That's what I mean 
by populism." 

We cannot know if the reaction might have differed had Carter listened to that 
advice and presented a plan for conservation that began with those pushing and 
profiting most from wasteful consumption. We do know that responses to climate 
change that continue to put the entire burden on individual consumers are doomed 
to fail. For instance, the annual "British Social Attitudes" survey, conducted by the 
independent NatCen Social Research, asked a set of questions about climate 
policies in the year 2000, and then again in 2010. It found that, "Whereas, 43 per 
cent a decade ago said they would be willing to pay higher prices to protect the 
environment, this is nowadays only true of 26 per cent. There has been a similar 
fall in the proportion prepared to pay higher taxes (3 1 to 22 per cent), but a smaller 
decline in relation to cuts in the standard of living (26 per cent to 20 per cent)."~ 


These results, and others like them, have been cited as proof that during times 
of economic hardship, people's environmental concerns go out the window. But 
that is not what these polls prove. Yes, there has been a drop in the willingness of 
individuals to bear the financial burden of responding to climate change, but not 
simply because economic times are hard. Western governments have responded to 
these hard times — which have been created by rampant greed and corruption 
among their wealthiest citizens — by asking those least responsible for the current 
conditions to bear the burden. After paying for the crisis of the bankers with cuts 
to education, health care, and social safety nets, is it any wonder that a beleaguered 
public is in no mood to bail out the fossil fuel companies from the crisis that they 
not only created but continue to actively worsen? 

Most of these surveys, notably, don't ask respondents how they feel about 
raising taxes on the rich and removing fossil fuel subsidies, yet these are some of 
the most reliably popular policies around. And it's worth noting that a U.S. poll 
conducted in 2010 — with the country still reeling from economic crisis — asked 
voters whether they would support a plan that "would make oil and coal companies 
pay for the pollution they cause. It would encourage the creation of new jobs and 
new technologies in cleaner energy like wind, solar, and nuclear power. The 
proposal also aims to protect working families, so it refunds almost all of the 
money it collects directly to the American people, like a tax refund, and most 
families end up better off." The poll found that three quarters of voters, including 
the vast majority of Republicans, supported the ideas as outlined, and only 1 1 
percent strongly opposed it. The plan was similar to a proposal, known as "cap and 
dividend," being floated by a pair of senators at the time, but it was never seriously 


considered by the U.S. Senate. 

And when, in June 2014, Obama finally introduced plans to use the 
Environmental Protection Agency to limit greenhouse gas emissions from existing 
power plants, the coal lobby howled with indignation but public opinion was 
solidly supportive. According to one poll, 64 percent of Americans, including a 
great many Republicans, backed such a policy even though it would likely mean 
paying more for energy every month ~ 

The lesson from all this is not that people won't sacrifice in the face of the 
climate crisis. It's that they have had it with our culture of lopsided sacrifice, in 
which individuals are asked to pay higher prices for supposedly green choices 
while large corporations dodge regulation and not only refuse to change their 
behavior, but charge ahead with ever more polluting activities. Witnessing this, it 
is perfectly sensible for people to shed much of the keener enthusiasm that marked 


the early days of the climate movement, and to make it clear that no more sacrifice 
will be made until the policy solutions on the table are perceived as just. This does 
not mean the middle class is off the hook. To fund the kind of social programs that 
will make a just transition possible, taxes will have to rise for everyone but the 
poor. But if the funds raised go toward social programs and services that reduce 
inequality and make lives far less insecure and precarious, then public attitudes 
toward taxation would very likely shift as well. 

To state the obvious: it would be incredibly difficult to persuade governments in 
almost every country in the world to implement the kinds of redistributive climate 
mechanisms I have outlined. But we should be clear about the nature of the 
challenge: it is not that "we" are broke or that we lack options. It is that our political 
class is utterly unwilling to go where the money is (unless it's for a campaign 
contribution), and the corporate class is dead set against paying its fair share. 

Seen in this light, it's hardly surprising that our leaders have so far failed to act 
to avert climate chaos. Indeed even if aggressive "polluter pays" measures were 
introduced, it isn't at all clear that the current political class would know what to 
do with the money. After all, changing the building blocks of our societies — the 
energy that powers our economies, how we move around, the designs of our major 
cities — is not about writing a few checks. It requires bold long-term planning at 
every level of government, and a willingness to stand up to polluters whose actions 
put us all in danger. And that won't happen until the corporate liberation project 
that has shaped our political culture for three and a half decades is buried for good. 

Just as the climate change deniers I met at the Heartland Institute fear, there is a 
direct relationship between breaking fossilized free market rules and making swift 
progress on climate change. Which is why, if we are to collectively meet the 
enormous challenges of this crisis, a robust social movement will need to demand 
(and create) political leadership that is not only committed to making polluters pay 
for a climate -ready public sphere, but willing to revive two lost arts: long-term 
public planning, and saying no to powerful corporations. 

~ This was the situation not only in the Rockaways but seemingly wherever public housing was in the path 
of the storm. In Red Hook, Brooklyn, many residents were left without power for three weeks, during which 
time the Housing Authority never went systematically door-to-door. As sixty-year-old Wally Bazemore put 
it at an angry residents meeting: "We were literally in the dark and we were completely in the dark." 

~ This is why the persistent positing of population control as a solution to climate change is a distraction 
and moral dead end. As this research makes clear, the most significant cause of rising emissions is not the 
reproductive behavior of the poor but the consumer behaviors of the rich. 




Slapping the Invisible Hand, Building a Movement 

"Post-modernism has cut off the present from all futures. The daily 
media adds to this by cutting off the past. Which means that critical 
opinion is often orphaned in the present." 

-John Berger, Keeping a Rendezvous, 1991 1 

"A reliably green company is one that is required to be green by law." 

-Gus Speth, former dean of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental 

Studies, 2008 2 

To understand how free market ideology continues to suffocate the potential for 
climate action, it's useful to look back on the most recent moment when 
transformative change of the scope required actually seemed like a real possibility, 
even in the United States. That time was 2009, the peak of the world financial crisis 
and the first year of the Obama presidency. 

Hindsight is easy, granted, but bear with me: imagining what might have been 
can help clarify what the future might still create. 

This was a moment when history was unfolding in fast-forward, when almost 
anything seemed possible, for better and worse. A large part of what made better 
scenarios seem possible was the decisive democratic mandate that Obama had just 
earned. He had been elected on a platform promising to rebuild the "Main Street" 
economy and to treat climate change as, in his words, "an opportunity, because if 
we create a new energy economy, we can create five million new jobs. ... It can be 
an engine that drives us into the future the same way the computer was the engine 


for economic growth over the last couple of decades." Both the fossil fuel 
companies and the environmental movement took it as a given that the new 


president would introduce a bold piece of climate legislation early in his 

The financial crisis, meanwhile, had just shattered public faith in laissez-faire 
economics around the world — so much so that there was tremendous support even 
in the U.S. for breaking long-standing ideological taboos against intervening 
directly in the market to create good jobs. That gave Obama the leverage to design 
a stimulus program worth about $800 billion (and he probably could have asked 
for more) to get the economy moving again. 

The other extraordinary factor in this moment was the weak state of the banks: 
in 2009, they were still on their knees, dependent on trillions in bailout funds and 
loan guarantees. And there was a live debate unfolding about how those banks 
should be restructured in exchange for all that taxpayer generosity (there was even 
serious discussion of nationalization). The other factor worth remembering is that 
starting in 2008, two of the Big Three automakers — companies at the very heart of 
the fossil fuel economy — had so badly mismanaged their affairs that they too had 
landed in the hands of the government, which had been tasked with securing their 

All told, three huge economic engines — the banks, the auto companies, and the 
stimulus bill — were in a state of play, placing more economic power in the hands 
of Obama and his party than any U.S. government since the administration of 
Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Imagine, for a moment, if his administration had been 
willing to invoke its newly minted democratic mandate to build the new economy 
promised on the campaign trail — to treat the stimulus bill, the broken banks, and 
the shattered car companies as the building blocks of that green future. Imagine if 
there had been a powerful social movement — a robust coalition of trade unions, 
immigrants, students, environmentalists, and everyone else whose dreams were 
getting crushed by the crashing economic model — demanding that Obama do no 

The stimulus package could have been used to build the best public transit 
systems and smart grids in the world. The auto industry could have been 
dramatically reengineered so that its factories built the machinery to power that 
transition — not just a few token electric cars (though those too) but also vast 
streetcar and high-speed rail systems across an underserved nation. Just as a 
shuttered auto parts factory in Ontario had reopened as the Silfab solar plant, 
similar transitions could have been made in closed and closing factories across the 
continent. This transformation was proposed at the time by one of the most 


important intellectuals of the North American labor movement, Sam Gindin, who 
served for many years as research director for the Canadian Auto Workers Union: 
If we are serious about incorporating environmental needs into the economy, 
this means changing everything about how we produce and consume and how 
we travel and live. The potential work to be done in this regard — in the tool 
and die shops that are closing, the component plants that have the capacity to 
make more than a specific component, and by a workforce anxious to do 
useful work — is limitless. 

The equipment and skills can be used to not only build different cars, and 
different car components, but to expand public transit and develop new 
transportation systems. They can participate in altering, in line with 
environmental demands, the machinery in every workplace and the motors 
that run the machinery. They can be applied to new systems of production 
that recycle used materials and final products (such as cars). Homes will have 
to be retrofitted and appliances modified. The use of solar panels and wind 
turbines will spread, new electricity grids will have to be developed, and 
urban infrastructure will have to be reinvented to accommodate the changes 
in transportation and energy use. 

What better time to launch such a project than now, in the face of having 
to overcome both the immediate economic crisis and the looming 
environmental crisis? And what greater opportunity to insist that we cannot 
lose valuable facilities and equipment, nor squander the creativity, knowledge 


and abilities of engineers, skilled trades and production workers? 

Retrofitting factories on that scale is expensive, to be sure, and that's where the 
bailed-out banks could have come in. A government unafraid to use its newfound 
power could have used the leverage it had over the banks (having just pulled them 
from the precipice) to enlist them — kicking and screaming if necessary — in this 
great transformation. As every banker knows, when you loan someone money, you 
acquire a fair bit of power over them. Does a factory need some capital to make 
the transition from dirty to clean? If it has a credible business plan, especially one 
that supports the stimulus vision, then the bailed-out banks could have been 
mandated by the state as part of the bailout to give that factory a loan. If one 
refused, it could have been nationalized, as several major banks were around the 
world in the period. 

Many of the previous factory owners would not have been interested in sticking 
around for this kind of transition, since the profit margins, at least at first, would 
have been small. But that is no reason to allow useful machines to be sold off as 


scrap. The workers at these plants, as Gindin suggested, could have been given the 
chance to run their old factories as cooperatives, as happened in several hundred 
abandoned factories in Argentina after that country's economic crisis in 2001. I 
lived in Buenos Aires for two years while making a documentary film about those 
factories, called The Take. One of the stories we told was about a group of workers 
who took over their shuttered auto-parts plant and turned it into a thriving co-op. 
It was a highly emotional journey, as workers took big risks and discovered new 
skills they had not known they possessed. And over a decade later, we still receive 
reports about how well things are going at the factory. Most of Argentina's 
"recovered factories" — as the hundreds of worker-run co-ops are called — are still 
in production, churning out everything from kitchen tiles to men's suits. This 
decentralized ownership model has the added benefit of pushing against the trend 
toward utterly unsustainable wealth inequality; rather than simply propping up the 
current global system in which eighty-five people control as much wealth as half 
the world's population, the ability to create wealth is gradually dispersed to the 
workers themselves, and the communities sustained by the presence of well-paying 

If that kind of coherent and sweeping vision had emerged in the United States 
in that moment of flux as the Obama presidency began, right-wing attempts to 
paint climate action as an economy killer would have fallen flat. It would have 
been clear to all that climate action is, in fact, a massive job creator, as well as a 
community rebuilder, and a source of hope in moments when hope is a scarce 
commodity indeed. But all of this would have required a government that was 
unafraid of bold long-term economic planning, as well as social movements that 
were able to move masses of people to demand the realization of that kind of 
vision. (The mainstream climate organizations in the U.S., in this crucial period, 
were instead narrowly focused on a failed attempt to get a piece of carbon-trading 
energy legislation through Congress, not on helping to build a broad movement.) 

In the absence of those factors, that rarest of historical moments — so pregnant 
with potential — slipped away. Obama let the failed banks do what they liked, 
despite the fact that their gross mismanagement had put the entire economy at risk. 
The fundamentals of the car industry were also left intact, with little more than a 
fresh wave of downsizing to show for the crisis. The industry lost nearly 115,000 
manufacturing jobs between 2008 and 2014. 

To be fair, there was significant support for wind and solar and for green 
initiatives like energy efficient building upgrades in the stimulus bill; without 
question, as journalist Michael Grunwald shows in The New New Deal, the funding 


amounted to "the biggest and most transformative energy bill in U.S. history." But 
public transit was still inexplicably shortchanged and the biggest infrastructure 
winner was the national highway system, precisely the wrong direction from a 
climate perspective. This failure was not only Obama's; as University of Leeds 
ecological economist Julia Steinberger observes, it was global. The financial crisis 
that began in 2008 "should have been an opportunity to invest in low-carbon 
infrastructure for the 21st century. Instead, we fostered a lose-lose situation: 
carbon emissions rocketing to unprecedented levels, alongside increases in 


joblessness, energy costs, and income disparities." 

What stopped Obama from seizing his historical moment to stabilize the 
economy and the climate at the same time was not lack of resources, or a lack of 
power. He had plenty of both. What stopped him was the invisible confinement of 
a powerful ideology that had convinced him — as it has convinced virtually all of 
his political counterparts — that there is something wrong with telling large 
corporations how to run their businesses even when they are running them into the 
ground, and that there is something sinister, indeed vaguely communist, about 
having a plan to build the kind of economy we need, even in the face of an 
existential crisis. 

This is, of course, yet another legacy bequeathed to us by the free market 
counterrevolution. As recently as the early 1970s, a Republican president — 
Richard Nixon — was willing to impose wage and price controls to rescue the U.S. 
economy from crisis, popularizing the notion that "We are all Keynesians 
now." But by the 1980s, the battle of ideas waged out of the same Washington 
think tanks that now deny climate change had successfully managed to equate the 
very idea of industrial planning with Stalin's five-year plans. Real capitalists don't 
plan, these ideological warriors insisted — they unleash the power of the profit 
motive and let the market, in its infinite wisdom, create the best possible society 
for all. 

Obama, obviously, does not share this extreme vision: as his health care and 
other social policies suggest, he believes government should nudge business in the 
right direction. And yet he is still sufficiently a product of his anti-planning era 
that when he had the banks, the auto companies, and the stimulus in his hands, he 
saw them as burdens to be rid of as soon as possible, rather than as a rare chance 
to build an exciting new future. 

If there is a lesson in this tremendous missed opportunity, it is this: if we are 
going to see climate action of the scale and speed required, the left is going to have 
to quickly learn from the right. Conservatives have managed to stall and roll back 


climate action amidst economic crisis by making climate about economics — about 
the pressing need to protect growth and jobs during difficult times (and they are 
always difficult). Progressives can easily do the same: by showing that the real 
solutions to the climate crisis are also our best hope of building a much more stable 
and equitable economic system, one that strengthens and transforms the public 
sphere, generates plentiful, dignified work, and radically reins in corporate greed. 

But before that can happen, it's clear that a core battle of ideas must be fought 
about the right of citizens to democratically determine what kind of economy they 
need. Policies that simply try to harness the power of the market — by minimally 
taxing or capping carbon and then getting out of the way — won't be enough. If we 
are to rise to a challenge that involves altering the very foundation of our economy, 
we will need every policy tool in the democratic arsenal. 

Planning for Jobs 

Some policymakers already understand this, which is why so many of the climate 
disputes being dragged in front of WTO tribunals hinge on attempts by 
governments, whether in Ontario or India, to reintroduce some measure of 
industrial planning to their economies. These governments are saying to industry: 
we will support you, but only if you support the communities from which you 
profit, by providing well-paying local jobs, and sourcing your products locally. 

The reason governments turn to buy-local or hire-local policies such as these is 
because they make political sense. Any response to the climate crisis that has a 
chance of success will create not just winners but also a significant number of 
losers — industries that can no longer exist in their current form and workers whose 
jobs will disappear. There is little hope of bringing the fossil fuel companies onside 
to a green transition; the profits they stand to lose are simply too great. That is not 
the case, however, for the workers whose salaries are currently tied to fossil fuel 
extraction and combustion. 

What we know is this: trade unions can be counted on to fiercely protect jobs, 
however dirty, if these are the only jobs on offer. On the other hand, when workers 
in dirty sectors are offered good jobs in clean sectors (like the former autoworkers 
at the Silfab factory in Toronto), and are enlisted as active participants in a green 
transition, then progress can happen at lightning speed. 

The potential job creation is huge. For instance, a plan put forward by the U.S. 
BlueGreen Alliance, a body that brings together unions and environmentalists, 


estimated that a $40 billion annual investment in public transit and high-speed rail 
for six years would produce more than 3.7 million jobs during that period. And we 
know that investments in public transit pay off: a 201 1 study by research and policy 
organization Smart Growth America found they create 31 percent more jobs per 
dollar than investment in new road and bridge construction. Investing in the 
maintenance and repair of roads and bridges creates 16 percent more jobs per dollar 


than investment in new road and bridge construction. All of which means that 
making existing transportation infrastructure work better for more people is a 
smarter investment from both a climate and an economic perspective than covering 
more land with asphalt. 

Renewable energy is equally promising, in part because it creates more jobs per 
unit of energy delivered than fossil fuels. In 2012, the International Labour 
Organization estimated that about five million jobs had already been created in the 
sector worldwide — and that is with only the most scattershot and inadequate levels 
of government commitment to emission reduction.^ If industrial policy were 
brought in line with climate science, the supply of energy through wind, solar, and 
other forms of renewable energy (geothermal and tidal power, for example) would 
generate huge numbers of jobs in every country — in manufacturing, construction, 
installation, maintenance, and operation. 

Similar research in Canada has found that an investment of $1.3 billion (the 
amount the Canadian government spends on subsidies to oil and gas companies) 
could create seventeen to twenty thousand jobs in renewable energy, public transit, 
or energy efficiency — six to eight times as many jobs as that money generates in 
the oil and gas sector. And according to a 201 1 report for the European Transport 
Workers Federation, comprehensive policies to reduce emissions in the transport 
sector by 80 percent would create seven million new jobs across the continent, 
while another five million clean energy jobs in Europe could slash electricity 
emissions by 90 percent. A bold coalition in South Africa, meanwhile, going under 
the banner of One Million Climate Jobs, is calling for mass job creation programs 
in areas ranging from renewable energy to public transit to ecosystem restoration 
to small-scale sustainable farming. "By placing the interests of workers and the 
poor at the forefront of strategies to combat climate change we can simultaneously 
halt climate change and address our jobs bloodbath," the campaign states. 11 

These are not, however, the kinds of jobs that the market will create on its own. 
They will be created on this scale only by thoughtful policy and planning. And in 
some cases, having the tools to make those plans will require citizens doing what 
the residents of so many German cities and towns have done: taking back control 


over electricity generation so that the switch to renewables can be made without 
delay, while any profits generated go not to shareholders but back into supporting 
hungry public services. 

And it's not only power generation that should receive this treatment. If the 
private companies that took over the national railways are cutting back and eroding 
services at a time when the climate crisis demands expanded low-carbon 
transportation alternatives to keep more of us out of planes, then these services too 
must be reclaimed. And after more than two decades of hard experience with 
privatizations — which has too often involved diminished services combined with 
higher prices — a great many people are ready to consider that option. For instance, 
a British poll released in November 2013 found "voters of all politics united in 
their support for nationalisation of energy and rail. 68 per cent of the public say 
the energy companies should be run in the public sector, while only 21 per cent 
say they should remain in private hands. 66 per cent support nationalising the 
railway companies while 23 per cent think they should be run privately." One of 
the most surprising aspects of the poll was the amount of support for 
nationalization among self-described Conservative voters: 52 percent favored 


taking back both the energy companies and the rails. 

Planning for Power 

The climate case for rethinking private ownership is particularly strong when it 
comes to natural gas, which is currently being touted by many governments as a 
"bridge fuel." The theory is that, in the time it takes for us to make a full switch to 
zero carbon sources of energy, gas can serve as an alternative to dirtier fossil fuels 
like coal and oil. It is far from clear that this bridge is necessary, given the speed 
of the shift to renewables in countries like Germany. And there are many problems, 
as we will see, with the whole idea of natural gas being clean. But from a planning 
perspective, the most immediate problem is that for the bridge concept to work, 
ways would have to be found to ensure that natural gas was being used only as a 
replacement for coal and oil — and not to undercut renewable energy. And this is a 
very real concern: in the U.S., the deluge of cheap natural gas thanks to tracking 
has already hurt the country's wind market, with wind power's share of the new 
electricity coming online plummeting from at least 42 percent in 2009 to 25 percent 
in 2010 and 32 percent in 2011 — the key years that fracking 


skyrocketed. Moreover, once the "bridge" to a renewable future has been built, 


there would have to be a way to phase out gas extraction completely, since it is a 
major emitter of greenhouse gases. 

There are various ways to design a system that would meet these specific goals. 
Governments could mandate "combined-cycle" plants that are better at ramping 
up and down to support wind and solar when available, for example, and they could 
firmly link any new gas plants to coal plants taken off the grid. Also crucial, says 
the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives' Ben Parfitt, an expert on fracking 
impacts, would be "regulations in place at the state and the national levels that 
made the link between where the gas is being produced and how it is being 
produced, and the ultimate production of the power," meaning that power plants 
could only source gas that was proven to have lower life-cycle emissions than 


coal. And that could well rule out fracked gas completely. Barriers would also 
need to be placed on the ability of companies to export their gas, in order to prevent 
it from being burned in countries that place no such restrictions. These measures 
would limit many, though by no means all, of the risks associated with natural gas, 
but they would also seriously eat into the profitability of the sector. 

Which raises the question: why would notoriously ruthless for-profit companies 
accept a business model that relies on them not competing with large parts of the 
energy sector (wind and solar), requires that they submit to a huge range of costly 
regulation, all with the eventual goal of putting themselves out of business? The 
answer is that they would not. Treating natural gas as a truly temporary transition 
fuel is anathema to the profit-seeking imperative that drives these corporations. 
After all, who is doing the fracking? It's companies like BP and Chevron, with 
their long track records of safety violations and fending off tough regulation. These 
are companies whose business model requires that they replace the oil and gas they 
have in production with new reserves of fossil fuels or face a shareholder rebellion. 
That same growth-above-all model demands that they occupy as much of the 
energy market as possible — which means competing not just with coal but with 
every player in the energy market, including vulnerable renewable s. To quote John 
Browne when he was chief executive of BP (he now heads the gas giant Cuadrilla): 
"Corporations have to be responsive to price signals. We are not public 
service." 1 ^ True enough — but that was neither always the case with our energy 
companies, nor must it remain so. 

The bottom line is simple. No private company in the world wants to put itself 
out of business; its goal is to expand its market. Which is why, if natural gas is to 
serve as a short-term transition fuel, that transition must be tightly managed by — 
and for — the public, so that the profits from current sales are reinvested in 


renewable technologies for the future, and the sector is constrained from indulging 
in the kind of exponential growth it is currently enjoying amidst the shale gas 

The solution is most emphatically not energy nationalization on existing models. 
The big publicly owned oil companies — from Brazil's Petrobras to Norway's 
Statoil to PetroChina — are just as voracious in pursuing high-risk pools of carbon 


as their private sector counterparts. And in the absence of a credible transition 
plan to harness the profits for a switch to renewable energy, having the state as the 
major shareholder in these companies has profoundly corrupting effects, creating 
an addiction to easy petrodollars that makes it even less likely that policymakers 
will introduce measures that hurt fossil fuel profits in any way. In short, these 
centralized monsters are fossils in every sense of the word, and need to be broken 
up and phased out whether they are held in public or private hands. 

A better model would be a new kind of utility — run democratically, by the 
communities that use them, as co-ops or as a "commons," as author and activist 

1 8 

David B oilier and others have outlined. This kind of structure would enable 
citizens to demand far more from their energy companies than they are able to 
now — for example, that they direct their profits away from new fossil fuel 
exploration and obscene executive compensation and shareholder returns and into 
building the network of complementary renewables that we now know has the 
potential to power our economies in our lifetimes. 

The rapid rise of renewables in Germany makes a powerful case for this model. 
The transition has occurred, first of all, within the context of a sweeping, national 
feed-in tariff program that includes a mix of incentives designed to ensure that 
anyone who wants to get into renewable power generation can do so in a way that 
is simple, stable, and profitable. Providers are guaranteed priority access to the 
grid, and offered a guaranteed price so the risk of losing money is low. 

This has encouraged small, noncorporate players to become renewable energy 
providers — farms, municipalities, and hundreds of newly formed co-ops. That has 
decentralized not just electrical power, but also political power and wealth: roughly 
half of Germany's renewable energy facilities are in the hands of farmers, citizen 
groups, and almost nine hundred energy cooperatives. Not only are they generating 
power but they also have the chance to generate revenue for their communities by 
selling back to the grid. Over all, there are now 1.4 million photovoltaic 


installations and about 25,000 windmills. Nearly 400,000 jobs have been created. 

Each one of these measures represents a departure from neoliberal orthodoxy: 
the government is engaging in long-term national planning; it is deliberately 


picking winners in the market (renewables over nuclear power, which it is 
simultaneously closing down); it is fixing prices (a clear market interference); and 
creating a fair playing field for any potential renewable energy producer — big or 
small — to enter the market. And yet despite — or rather because of — these 
ideological heresies, Germany's transition is among the fastest in the world. 
According to Hans Thie, the advisor on economic policy for the Left Party in the 
German parliament, who has been intensely involved in the transition, "Virtually 
all expansion estimates have been surpassed. The speed of expansion is 


considerably higher than had been expected." 

Nor can this success be dismissed as a one-off. Germany' s program mirrors one 
implemented in Denmark in the 1970s and 1980s, which helped switch more than 
40 percent of the country's electricity consumption to renewables, mostly wind. 
Up to around 2000, roughly 85 percent of Danish wind turbines were owned by 
small players like farmers and co-ops. Though large offshore wind operators have 
entered the market in recent years, this remains a striking commonality between 
Denmark and Germany: it's neither big nationally owned monopolies nor large 
corporate- owned wind and solar operators that have the best track record for 
spurring renewable energy turnarounds — it's communities, co-ops, and farmers, 
working within the context of an ambitious, well-designed national 


framework. Though often derided as the impractical fantasy of small-is-beautiful 
dreamers, decentralization delivers, and not on a small scale but on the largest scale 
of any model attempted thus far, and in highly developed postindustrial nations. 

It is also surely no coincidence that Denmark, a deeply social democratic 
country, introduced these policies well before it began its halfhearted embrace of 
neoliberalism, or that Germany — while prescribing brutal austerity to debtor 
countries like Greece and Spain — has never fully followed these prescriptions at 
home. These examples make clear that when governments are willing to introduce 
bold programs and put goals other than profit making at the forefront of their 
policymaking, change can happen with astonishing speed. 

Decentralized control over energy is also important for very practical reasons. 
There are plenty of examples of large-scale, privately owned renewable energy 
projects that fell apart because they were imposed from the outside without local 
input or profit sharing. Indeed, when communities are excluded in this way, there 
is a very good chance that they will rebel against the noise and "unsightliness" of 
wind turbines, or the threats — some real, some imagined — to wildlife and 
ecosystems posed by solar arrays. These objections are often dismissed as 


NIMBY-ism (Not in My Backyard) and are used as more evidence of humanity's 
tendency toward selfishness and shortsightedness. 

But in several regions, these objections have been entirely neutralized with 
thoughtful planning. As Preben Maegaard, former president of the World Wind 
Energy Association, once put it, "When local people own the wind farms, and 
share in the benefits, they will support them. It won't be NIMBY (Not In My Back 
Yard), it will be POOL (Please On Our Land)." 23 

This is particularly true in times of unending public austerity. "The future is 
something that is not relevant at the moment for some people because they're 
surviving for the present," Dimitra Spatharidou, a Greek climate change activist 
engaged in that country's broader anti-austerity movement, told me. "It's difficult 
to understand the concept of sustainability when people are fighting for food and 
to have energy to heat their homes." Because of these pressing concerns, her work 
is "not about preaching about what happens when climate change hits Greece, it's 
about what's happening now and how we can change our economies and our 
societies into something better, to something more equitable and to something 


fair." For Spatharidou, that has meant showing how community-controlled 
renewable energy can be cheaper than dirtier alternatives, and can even be a source 
of income when energy is fed back into the grid. It has also meant resisting a 
government push to privatize municipal water supplies, pushing instead for 
community ownership, an idea with broad support in Greece. The key, she says, is 
to offer people something the current system doesn't: the tools and the power to 
build a better life for themselves. 

This relationship between power decentralization and successful climate action 
points to how the planning required by this moment differs markedly from the 
more centralized versions of the past. There is a reason, after all, why it was so 
easy for the right to vilify state enterprises and national planning: many state- 
owned companies were bureaucratic, cumbersome, and unresponsive; the five- 
year plans cooked up under state socialist governments were indeed top-down and 
remote, utterly disconnected from local needs and experiences, just as the plans 
issued by the Communist Party of China's Central Committee are today. 

The climate planning we need is of a different sort entirely. There is a clear and 
essential role for national plans and policies — to set overall emission targets that 
keep each country safely within its carbon budget, and to introduce policies like 
the feed-in tariffs employed in Germany, Ontario, and elsewhere, that make 
renewable energy affordable. Some programs, like national energy grids and 
effective rail services, must be planned, at least in part, at the national level. But if 


these transitions are to happen as quickly as required, then the best way to win 
widespread buy-in is for the actual implementation of a great many of the plans to 
be as decentralized as possible. Communities should be given new tools and 
powers to design the methods that work best for them — much as worker-run co- 
ops have the capacity to play a huge role in an industrial transformation. And what 
is true for energy and manufacturing can be true for many other sectors: transit 
systems accountable to their riders, water systems overseen by their users, 
neighborhoods planned democratically by their residents, and so on. 

Most critically, farming — a major source of greenhouse gas emissions — can also 
become an expanded sector of decentralized self-sufficiency and poverty 
reduction, as well as a key tool for emission reduction. Currently, much of the 
debate about agriculture and climate change focuses on contrasting the pros and 
cons of industrial agriculture versus local and organic farming, with one side 
emphasizing higher yields and the other emphasizing lower chemical inputs and 
often (though not always) shorter supply lines. Coming up through the middle is 
"agroecology," a less understood practice in which small-scale farmers use 
sustainable methods based on a combination of modern science and local 

Based on the principle that farming should maximize species diversity and 
enhance natural systems of soil protection and pest control, agroecology looks 
different wherever its holistic techniques are practiced. But a report in National 
Geographicprovides a helpful overview of how these principles translate in a few 
different contexts: the integration of "trees and shrubs into crop and livestock 
fields; solar-powered drip irrigation, which delivers water directly to plant roots; 
intercropping, which involves planting two or more crops near each other to 
maximize the use of light, water, and nutrients; and the use of green manures, 
which are quick- growing plants that help prevent erosion and replace nutrients in 


the soil." 

These methods and many others maintain healthy soil while producing nutritious 
food — more than industrial agriculture does, per unit area — and limit the need for 
farmers to buy expensive products like chemical pesticides, fertilizers, and 
patented seeds. But many farmers who have long used these methods have realized 
that they also have a triple climate benefit: they sequester carbon in the soil, avoid 
fossil fuel-based fertilizers, and often use less carbon for transportation to market, 
in addition to better withstanding extreme weather and other climate impacts. And 
communities that can feed themselves are far less vulnerable to price shocks within 
the broader globalized food system. Which is why La Via Campesina, a global 


network of small farmers with 200 million members, often declares, "Agroecology 


is the solution to solve the climate crisis." Or "small farmers cool the planet." 

In recent years, a phalanx of high-level food experts has come to similar 
conclusions. "A large segment of the scientific community now acknowledges the 
positive impacts of agroecology on food production, poverty alleviation and 
climate change mitigation — and this is what is needed in a world of limited 
resources," says Olivier De Schutter, who served as the UN Special Rapporteur on 
the Right to Food from 2008 to 2014.- 

Just as they dismiss decentralized energy as too small, defenders of Big 
Agribusiness maintain that local organic agriculture simply cannot feed a world of 
7 billion and growing — but those claims are generally based on comparisons 
between yields from industrial, often genetically engineered monocrops, and 
organic monocrops. Agroecology is left out of the picture. That's a problem 
because as De Schutter notes, "Today's scientific evidence demonstrates that 
agroecological methods outperform the use of chemical fertilizers in boosting food 
production where the hungry live — especially in unfavorable environments." He 
cites the example of Malawi, where a recent turn to agroecology has led to a 
doubling or tripling of maize yields in some areas, and adds that "to date, 
agroecological projects have shown an average crop yield increase of 80% in 57 
developing countries, with an average increase of 116% for all African projects. 
Recent projects conducted in 20 African countries demonstrated a doubling of crop 


yields over a period of 3-10 years." 

All this amounts to a compelling case against the claim, frequently voiced by 
powerful philanthropists like Bill Gates, that the developing world, particularly 
Africa, needs a "New Green Revolution" — a reference to philanthropic and 
government efforts in the mid-twentieth century to introduce industrial agriculture 
in Asia and Latin America. "It's often claimed, particularly by those who'd like to 
see it rebooted, that the Green Revolution saved the world from hunger," 
sociologist Raj Patel, author of Stuffed and Starved, told me. "The problem is that 
even with the Green Revolution, starvation continues — particularly in India, where 
the revolution was most intense. Hunger isn't about the amount of food around — 
it's about being able to afford and control that food. After all, the U.S. has more 


food than it knows what to do with, and still 50 million people are food insecure." 

And he adds, "The tragedy here is that there are thousands of successful 
experiments, worldwide, showing how climate-smart agriculture can work. 
They're characterized not by expensive fertilizer from Yara and proprietary seeds 
from Monsanto, but knowledge developed and shared by peasants freely and 


equitably." And, Patel says, "In its finest moments, agroecologygets combined 
with 'food sovereignty,' with democratic control of the food system, so that not 


only is more food produced, but it' s distributed so that everyone gets to eat it too."^~ 

About That German Miracle ... 

We now have a few models to point to that demonstrate how to get far-reaching 
decentralized climate solutions off the ground with remarkable speed, while 
fighting poverty, hunger, and joblessness at the same time. But it's also clear that, 
however robust, these tools and incentives are not enough to lower emissions in 
time. And this brings us to what has most definitelynetf worked about the German 
energy transition. 

In 2012 — with its renewable sector soaring to new heights — German emissions 
actually went up from the previous year. Preliminary data suggest that the same 
thing happened in 2013. The country's emissions are still 24 percent below what 
they were in 1990, so these two years may turn out to have been a short-term blip, 
but the fact that the dramatic rise of renewables is not corresponding to an equally 


dramatic drop in greenhouse gas emissions is cause for great concern.^ It also tells 
us something critical about the limits of economic plans based on incentives and 
market mechanisms alone. 

Many have attributed the emissions rise to Germany's decision to phase out 
nuclear power, but the facts are not nearly so simple. It's true that in 2011, in the 
wake of the Fukushima disaster, the government of Chancellor Angela Merkel — 
under intense pressure from the country's powerful antinuclear movement — 
announced that it would phase out nuclear power by 2022, and took aggressive 
action to begin the process. But at the same time, the government took no similar 
action to phase out coal and even allowed coal companies to export power to other 
countries. So even though Germans have indeed been moving in ever greater 
numbers to renewable energy, coal power continued to grow, with some of it 
displacing nuclear power, some of it displacing gas, and some of it being exported. 
And much of the coal in Germany is lignite, often referred to as brown coal, a low- 


grade variety with particularly high emissions. 

As we have already seen, the latest research on renewable energy, most notably 
by Mark Jacobson's team at Stanford, shows that a global transition to 100 percent 
renewable energy — "wind, water and solar" — is both technically and 
economically feasible "by as early as 2030." That means lowering greenhouse 


emissions in line with science-based targets does not have to involve building a 
global network of new nuclear plants. In fact that could well slow down the 
transition, since renewable energy is faster and cheaper to roll out than nuclear, 
critical factors given the tightness of the timeframe. Moreover, says Jacobson, in 
the near-term nuclear is "not carbon-free, no matter what the advocates tell you. 
Vast amounts of fossil fuels must be burned to mine, transport and enrich uranium 
and to build the nuclear plant. And all that dirty power will be released during the 
10 to 19 years that it takes to plan and build a nuclear plant. (A wind farm typically 
takes two to five years.)" He concludes that "if we invest in nuclear versus true 
renewables, you can bet that the glaciers and polar ice caps will keep melting while 
we wait, and wait, for the nuclear age to arrive. We will also guarantee a riskier 
future for us all." Indeed, renewable installations present dramatically lower risks 
than either fossil fuels or nuclear energy to those who live and work next to them. 
As comedian Bill Maher once observed, "You know what happens when windmills 


collapse into the sea? A splash."^ 
That said, about 12 percent of the world's power is currently supplied by nuclear 


energy, much of it coming from reactors that are old and obsolete. From a climate 
perspective, it would certainly be preferable if governments staggered their 
transitions away from high-risk energy sources like nuclear,prioritizing fossil fuels 
for cuts because the next decade is so critical for getting us off our current 
trajectory toward 4-6 degrees Celsius of warming. That would be compatible with 
a moratorium on new nuclear facilities, a decommissioning of the oldest plants and 
then a full nuclear phase-out once renewables had decisively displaced fossil fuels. 

And yet it must also be acknowledged that it was the power of Germany's 
antinuclear movement that created the conditions for the renewables revolution in 
the first place (as was the case in Denmark in the 1980s), so there might have been 
no energy transition to debate without that widespread desire to get off nuclear due 
to its many hazards. Moreover, many German energy experts are convinced that 
the speed of the transition so far proves that it is possible to phase out both nuclear 
and fossil fuels simultaneously. A 2012 report by the German National Center for 
Aerospace, Energy and Transport Research (DLR), for instance, demonstrated that 
67 percent of the electicity in all of the EU could come from renewables by 2030, 


with that number reaching 96 percent by 2050. But, clearly, this will become a 
reality only if the right policies are in place. 

For that to happen, the German government would have to be willing to do to 
the coal industry what it has been willing to do to the nuclear power industry: 
introduce specific, top-down regulations to phase it out. Instead, because of the 


vast political power of the German coal lobby, the Merkel government has relied 
on the weak market mechanism of carbon trading, through the European emissions 


trading system, to try to put negative pressure on coal. When the European carbon 
market fell apart, and the price of carbon plummeted, this strategy proved 
disastrous. Coal was cheap, there was no real penalty to burning it, and there were 
no blocks on exporting coal power, and so key years that should have been 
triumphs over pollution became setbacks. 

Tadzio Mueller, a Berlin-based researcher and climate expert, put the problem 
to me like this: "German emissions are not up because nuclear power is down. 
They're up because nobody told the German power companies not to burn coal, 
and as long as they can profitably sell the electricity somewhere, they'll burn the 
coal — even if most electricity consumed in Germany was renewable. What we 


need are strict rules against the extraction and burning of coal. Period." 

It is critical for governments to put creative incentives in place so that 
communities around the world have tools to say yes to renewable energy. But what 
the German experience shows is that all that progress will be put at risk unless 
policymakers are willing simultaneously to say no to the ever rapacious fossil fuel 

Remembering How to Say No 

Even before I saw the giant mines, when the landscape out the window was still 
bright green boggy marshes and lush boreal forest, I could feel them — a catch in 
the back of my throat. Then, up and over a small elevation, there they were: the 
notorious Alberta tar sands, a parched, gray desert stretching to the horizon. 
Mountains of waste so large workers joke that they have their own weather 
systems. Tailing ponds so vast they are visible from space. The second largest dam 
in the world, built to contain that toxic water. The earth, skinned alive. 

Science fiction is rife with fantasies of terraforming — humans traveling to 
lifeless planets and engineering them into earthlike habitats. The Canadian tar 
sands are the opposite: terra-deforming. Taking a habitable ecosystem, filled with 
life, and engineering it into a moonscape where almost nothing can live. And if 
this goes on, it could impact an area roughly the size of England. All to access a 
semisolid form of "unconventional" oil known as bitumen that is so difficult and 
energy-intensive to extract that the process is roughly three to four times as 


greenhouse gas intensive as extracting conventional oh: 


In June 2011, I cosigned a letter drafted by author and climate activist Bill 
McKibben that called on people to come to Washington, D.C., "in the hottest and 
stickiest weeks of the summer" to get arrested protesting the proposed Keystone 
XL pipeline. Amazingly, more than 1,200 people did just that, making it the largest 


act of civil disobedience in the history of the North American climate movement. 

For over a year, a coalition of ranchers and Indigenous people who lived along 
the proposed route of the pipeline had been campaigning hard against the project. 
But the action in Washington took the campaign national, and turned it into a 
flashpoint for a resurgent U.S. climate movement. 

The science for singling out Keystone XL was clear enough. The pipeline would 
be carrying oil from the Alberta tar sands, and James Hansen, then still working at 
NASA, had recently declared that if the bitumen trapped in the tar sands was all 


dug up and burned, it would be "game over for the climate." But there was also 
some political strategy at work: unlike so many other key climate policies, which 
either required approval from Congress or were made at the state level, the decision 
about whether to approve the Keystone XL pipeline was up to the State Department 
and, ultimately, the president himself, based on whether he determined the project 
to be in the "national interest." On this one, Obama would have to give his personal 
yes or no, and it seemed to us that there was value in extracting either answer. 

If he said no, that would be a much needed victory on which to build at a time 
when the U.S. climate movement, bruised from the failure to get energy legislation 
through Congress, badly needed some good news. If he said yes, well, that too 
would be clarifying. Climate activists, almost all of whom had worked to get 
Obama elected, would have to finally abandon the hopes they had pinned on the 
young senator who had proclaimed that his election would be remembered as "the 
moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to 


heal." Letting go of that faith would be disillusioning for many, but at least tactics 
could be adjusted accordingly. And it seemed we would not have to wait long for 
a verdict: the president would be in a position to make his decision by early 
September, which is why the civil disobedience was called for the end of August. 

It never occurred to us in those early strategy sessions at , the climate 
organization that McKibben cofounded and where I am a board member, that three 
years later we would still be waiting for the president's yes or no. Three years 
during which Obama waffled and procrastinated, while his administration ordered 
more environmental reviews, then reviews of those reviews, then reviews of those 


A great deal of intellectual energy has been expended trying to interpret the 
president's mixed signals on Keystone XL — at times he seemed to be sending a 
clear message that he was going to give his approval, as when he arranged for a 
photo op in front of a raft of metal pipeline waiting to be laid down; other times he 
seemed to be suggesting that he was leaning toward rejection, as when he declared, 
in one of his more impassioned speeches about climate change, that Keystone 
would be approved "only if this project does not significantly exacerbate the 


problem of carbon pollution." 

But whichever way the decision eventually goes (and one can hope that we will 
know the answer by the time you read this), the drawn-out saga made at least one 
thing absolutely clear. Like Angela Merkel, Obama has a hell of a hard time saying 
no to the fossil fuel industry. And that's a very big problem because to lower 
emissions as rapidly and deeply as required, we need to keep large, extremely 
profitable pools of carbon in the ground — resources that the fossil fuel companies 
are fully intending to extract. 

That means our governments are going to have to start putting strict limits on 
the industry — limits ranging from saying no to pipelines linked to expanded 
extraction, to caps on the amount of carbon corporations can emit, to banning new 
coal-fired power plants, to winding down dirty-energy extraction projects like the 
Alberta tar sands, to saying no to demands to open up new carbon frontiers (like 
the oil trapped under melting Arctic ice). 

In the 1960s and 1970s, when a flurry of environmental legislation was passed in 
the U.S. and in other major industrial countries, saying no to dirty industry was, 
though never easy, an accepted part of the balancing act of government. That is 
simply no longer the case, as is evident from the howls of outrage from 
Republicans and many Democrats over the mere suggestion that Obama might 
reject Keystone XL, a moderate- sized infrastructure project that, by the president's 
own admission, would create so few lasting jobs that they represent "a blip relative 


to the need." Given how wrenchingly difficult that yes-or-no regulatory decision 
proved to be, it should not be at all surprising that broader, more forceful controls 
on how much carbon should be extracted and emitted have thus far been entirely 

Obama' s much-heralded move in June 2014 mandating emission reductions 
from power plants was certainly the right direction, but the measures were still 
much too timid to bring the U.S. in line with a safe temperature trajectory. As 


author and long-time climate watcher Mark Hertsgaard observed at the time, 
"President Obama clearly grasps the urgency of the climatecrisis and has taken 
important steps to address it. But it is his historical fate to be in power at a time 
when good intentions and important steps are no longer enough.. . . Perhaps all this 
places an unfair burden on President Obama. But science does not care about fair, 
and leaders inherit the history they inherit." And yet as Hertsgaard acknowledges, 
the kind of policies that would be enough "seem preposterous to the political and 


economic status quo. 

This state of affairs is, of course, yet another legacy of the free market 
counterrevolution. In virtually every country, the political class accepts the 
premise that it is not the place of government to tell large corporations what they 
can and cannot do, even when public health and welfare — indeed the habitability 
of our shared home — are clearly at stake. The guiding ethos of light-touch 
regulation, and more often of active deregulation, has taken an enormous toll in 
every sector, most notably the financial one. It has also blocked commonsense 
responses to the climate crisis at every turn — sometimes explicitly, when 
regulations that would keep carbon in the ground are rejected outright, but mostly 
implicitly, when those kinds of regulations are not even proposed in the first place, 
and so-called market solutions are favored for tasks to which they are wholly 

It' s true that the market is great at generating technological innovation and, left 
to its own devices, R&D departments will continue to come up with 
impressive new ways to make solar modules and electrical appliances more 
efficient. But at the same time, market forces will also drive new and innovative 
ways to get hard-to-reach fossil fuels out of the deep ocean and hard shale — and 
those dirty innovations will make the green ones essentially irrelevant from a 
climate change perspective. 

At the Heartland conference, Cato's Patrick Michaels inadvertently made that 
point when he argued that, though he believes climate change is happening, the 
real solution is to do nothing and wait for a technological miracle to rain down 
from the heavens. "Doing nothing is actually doing something," he proclaimed, 
assuring the audience that "technologies of the future" would save the day. His 
proof? "Two words: Shale gas.... That's what happens if you allow people to use 
their intellect, and their inquisitiveness, and their drive, in order to produce new 
energy sources." And of course the Heartland audience cheered earnestly for the 
intellectual breakthrough that is hydraulic fracturing (aka tracking) combined with 


horizontal drilling, the technology that has finally allowed the fossil fuel industry 


to screw us sideways. 

And it's these "unconventional" methods of extracting fossil fuels that are the 
strongest argument for forceful regulation. Because one of the greatest 
misconceptions in the climate debate is that our society is refusing to change, 
protecting a status quo called "business-as-usual." The truth is that there is no 
business-as-usual. The energy sector is changing dramatically all the time — but 
the vast majority of those changes are taking us in precisely the wrong direction, 
toward energy sources with even higher planet-warming emissions than their 
conventional versions. 

Take fracking. Natural gas's reputation as a clean alternative to coal and oil is 
based on emissions measurements from gas extracted through conventional 
drilling practices. But in April 2011, a new study by leading scientists at Cornell 
University showed that when gas is extracted through fracking, the emissions 


picture changes dramatically. 

The study found that methane emissions linked to fracked natural gas are at least 
30 percent higher than the emissions linked to conventional gas. That's because 
the fracking process is leaky — methane leaks at every stage of production, 
processing, storage, and distribution. And methane is an extraordinarily dangerous 
greenhouse gas, thirty-four times more effective at trapping heat than carbon 
dioxide, based on the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates. 
According to the Cornell study, this means that fracked gas has a greater 
greenhouse gas impact than oil and may well have as much of a warming impact 


as coal when the two energy sources are examined over an extended life cycle. 

Furthermore, Cornell biogeochemist Robert Howarth, the lead author of the 
study, points out that methane is an even more efficient trapper of heat in the first 
ten to fifteen years after it is released — indeed it carries a warming potential that 
is eighty-six times greater than that of carbon dioxide. And given that we have 
reached "decade zero," that matters a great deal. "It is in this shorter time frame 
that we risk locking ourselves into very rapid warming," Howarth explains, 
especially because huge liquid natural gas export terminals currently planned or 
being built in Australia, Canada, and the United States are not being constructed 
to function for only the next decade but for closer to the next half century. So, to 
put it bluntly, in the key period when we need to be looking for ways to cut our 
emissions rapidly, the global gas boom is in the process of constructing a network 


of ultra-powerful atmospheric ovens. 


The Cornell study was the first peer-reviewed research on the greenhouse gas 
footprint of shale production, including from methane emissions, and its lead 
author was quick to volunteer that his data were inadequate (largely due to the 
industry's lack of transparency). Still, the study was a bombshell, and though it 
remains controversial, a steady stream of newer work has bolstered the case for a 


high rate of methane leakage in the fracking process. 

The gas industry isn't the only one turning to dirtier, higher -risk methods. Like 
Germany, the Czech Republic and Poland are increasingly relying on and 


expanding production of extra-dirty lignite coal. And the major oil companies 
are rushing into various tar sands deposits, most notably in Alberta, all with 
significantly higher carbon footprints than conventional oil. They are also moving 
into ever deeper and icier waters for offshore drilling, carrying the risk of not just 
more catastrophic spills, as we saw with BP's Deepwater Horizon disaster, but 
spills that are simply impossible to clean up. Increasingly, these extreme extraction 
methods — blasting oil and gas out of rock, steaming oil out of tarlike dirt — are 
being used together, as when fracked natural gas is piped in to superheat the water 
that melts the bitumen in the tar sands, to cite just one example from the energy 
death spiral. What industry calls innovation, in other words, looks more like the 
final suicidal throes of addiction. We are blasting the bedrock of our continents, 
pumping our water with toxins, lopping off mountaintops, scraping off boreal 
forests, endangering the deep ocean, and scrambling to exploit the melting 
Arctic — all to get at the last drops and the final rocks. Yes, some very advanced 
technology is making this possible, but it's not innovation, it's madness. 

The fact that fossil fuel companies have been permitted to charge into 
unconventional fossil fuel extraction over the past decade was not inevitable, but 
rather the result of very deliberate regulatory decisions — decisions to grant these 
companies permits for massive new tar sands and coal mines; to open vast swaths 
of the United States to natural gas fracking, virtually free from regulation and 
oversight; to open up new stretches of territorial waters and lift existing 
moratoriums on offshore drilling. These various decisions are a huge part of what 
is locking us into disastrous levels of planetary warming. These decisions, in turn, 
are the product of intense lobbying by the fossil fuel industry, motivated by the 
most powerful driver of them all: the will to survive. 

As a rule, extracting and refining unconventional energy is a far more expensive 
and involved industrial process than doing the same for conventional fuels. So, for 
instance, Imperial Oil (of which Exxon owns a majority share) sank about $13 
billion to open the sprawling Kearl open-pit mine in the Alberta tar sands. At two 


hundred square kilometers, it will be one of the largest open-pit mines in Canada, 
more than three times the size of Manhattan. And it is only a fraction of the new 
construction planned for the tar sands: the Conference Board of Canada projects 
that a total of $364 billion will be invested through 2035 ~ 

In Brazil, meanwhile, Britain's BG Group is expected to make a $30 billion 
investment over the next decade, much of it going into ultra-deepwater "subsalt" 
projects in which oil is extracted from depths of approximately three thousand 
meters (ten thousand feet). But the prize for fossil fuel lock-in surely goes to 
Chevron, which is spending a projected $54 billion on a gas development on 
Barrow Island, a "Class A Nature Reserve" off the northwest coast of Australia. 
The project will release so much natural gas from the earth that it is appropriately 
named Gorgon, after the terrifying, snake-haired female monster of Greek 
mythology. One of Chevron's partners in the project is Shell, which is reportedly 
spending an additional $10-12 billion to build the largest floating offshore facility 
ever constructed (longer than four soccer fields) in order to extract natural gas from 
a different location off the northwest coast of Australia. 

These investments won't be recouped unless the companies that made them are 
able to keep extracting for decades, since the up-front costs are amortized over the 
life of the projects. Chevron's Australia project is expected to keep producing 
natural gas for at least thirty years, while Shell's floating gas monstrosity is built 
to function on that site for up to twenty-five years. Exxon's Alberta mine is 
projected to operate for forty years, as is BP/Husky Energy's enormous Sunrise 
project, also in the tar sands. This is only a small sampling of mega-investments 
taking place around the world in the frantic scramble for hard-to-extract oil, gas, 
and coal. The long time frames attached to all these projects tell us something 
critical about the assumptions under which the fossil fuel industry is working: it is 
betting that governments are not going to get serious about emissions cuts for the 
next twenty-five to forty years. And yet climate experts tell us that if we want to 
have a shot at keeping warming below 2 degrees Celsius, then developed country 
economies need to have begun their energy turnaround by the end of this decade 


and to be almost completely weaned from fossil fuels before 2050. 

If the companies have miscalculated and we do get serious about leaving carbon 
in the ground, these huge projects will become what is known as "stranded 
assets" — investments that lose their projected value as a result of, for example, 
dramatic changes in environmental policy. When a company has a great deal of 
expensive stranded assets on its books, the stock market takes notice, and responds 
by bidding down the share price of the company that made these bad bets. 


This problem goes well beyond a few specific projects and is integrated into the 
way that the market assigns value to companies that are in the business of 
extracting finite resources from the earth. In order for the value of these companies 
to remain stable or grow, oil and gas companies must always be able to prove to 
their shareholders that they have fresh carbon reserves to exploit after they exhaust 
those currently in production. This process is as crucial for extractive companies 
as it is for a company that sells cars or clothing to show their shareholders that they 
have preorders for their future products. At minimum, an energy company is 
expected to have as much oil and gas in its proven reserves as it does in current 
production, which would give it a "reserve-replacement ratio" of 100 percent. As 
the popular site Investopedia explains, "A company's reserve replacement ratio 
must be at least 100% for the company to stay in business long-term; otherwise, it 


will eventually run out of oil." 

Which is why investors tend to get quite alarmed when the ratio drops below 
that level. For instance, in 2009, on the same day that Shell announced that its 
reserve-replacement ratio for the previous year had ominously dipped to 95 
percent, the company scrambled to reassure the market that it was not in trouble. 
It did this, tellingly, by declaring that it would cease new investments in wind and 
solar energy. At the same time, it doubled down on a strategy of adding new 
reserves from shale gas (accessible only through fracking), deepwater oil, and tar 
sands. All in all, Shell managed that year to add a record 3.4 billion barrels of oil 
equivalent in new proven reserves — nearly three times its production in 2009, or a 


reserve-replacement ratio of 288 percent. Its stock price went up accordingly. 

For a fossil fuel major, keeping up its reserve-replacement ratio is an economic 
imperative; without it, the company has no future. It has to keep moving just to 
stand still. And it is this structural imperative that is pushing the industry into the 
most extreme forms of dirty energy; there are simply not enough conventional 
deposits left to keep up the replacement ratios. According to the International 
Energy Agency's annual World Energy Outlook report, global conventional oil 
production from "existing fields" will drop from 68 million barrels per day in 2012 
to an expected 27 million in 2035. 

That means that an oil company looking to reassure shareholders that it has a 
plan for what to do, say, when the oil in Alaska's Prudhoe Bay runs out, will be 
forced to go into higher-risk, dirtier territories. It is telling, for instance, that more 
than half 'of the reserves Exxon added in 2011 come from a single oil project: the 
massive Kearl mine being developed in the Alberta tar sands. This imperative 
also means that, so long as this business model is in place, no coastline or aquifer 


will be safe. Every victory against the fossil fuel companies, no matter how hard 
won, will be temporary, just waiting to be overtaken with howls of "Drill, Baby, 
Drill." It won't be enough even when we can walk across the Gulf of Mexico on 
the oil rigs, or when Australia's Great Barrier Reef is a parking lot for coal tankers, 
or when Greenland's melting ice sheet is stained black from a spill we have no 
idea how to clean up. Because these companies will always need more reserves to 
top up their replacement ratios, year after year after year. 

From the perspective of a fossil fuel company, going after these high-risk carbon 
deposits is not a matter of choice — it is its fiduciary responsibility to shareholders, 
who insist on earning the same kinds of mega-profits next year as they did this 
year and last year. And yet fulfilling that fiduciary responsibility virtually 
guarantees that the planet will cook. 

This is not hyperbole. In 201 1, a think tank in London called the Carbon Tracker 
Initiative conducted a breakthrough study that added together the reserves claimed 
by all the fossil fuel companies, private and state-owned. It found that the oil, gas, 
and coal to which these players had already laid claim — deposits they have on their 
books and which were already making money for shareholders — represented 2,795 
gigatons of carbon (a gigaton is 1 billion metric tons). That's a very big problem 
because we know roughly how much carbon can be burned between now and 2050 
and still leave us a solid chance (roughly 80 percent) of keeping warming below 2 
degrees Celsius. According to one highly credible study, that amount of carbon is 
565 gigatons between 2011 and 2049. And as Bill McKibben points out, "The 
thing to notice is, 2,795 is five times 565. It's not even close." He adds: "What 
those numbers mean is quite simple. This industry has announced, in filings to the 
SEC and in promises to shareholders, that they're determined to burn five times 


more fossil fuel than the planet's atmosphere can begin to absorb." 

Those numbers also tell us that the very thing we must do to avert catastrophe — 
stop digging — is the very thing these companies cannot contemplate without 
initiating their own demise. They tell us that getting serious about climate change, 
which means cutting our emissions radically, is simply not compatible with the 
continued existence of one of the most profitable industries in the world. 

And the amounts of money at stake are huge. The total amount of carbon in 
reserve represents roughly $27 trillion — more than ten times the annual GDP of 
the United Kingdom. If we were serious about keeping warming below 2 degrees, 
approximately 80 percent of that would be useless, stranded assets. Given these 
stakes, it is no mystery why the fossil fuel companies fight furiously to block every 


piece of legislation that would point us in the right emissions direction, and why 


some directly fund the climate change denier movement. 

It also helps that these companies are so profitable that they have money not just 
to burn, but to bribe — especially when that bribery is legal. In 2013 in the United 
States alone, the oil and gas industry spent just under $400,000 a day lobbying 
Congress and government officials, and the industry doled out a record $73 million 
in federal campaign and political donations during the 2012 election cycle, an 87 


percent jump from the 2008 elections. 

In Canada, corporations are not required to disclose how much money they 
spend on lobbying, but the number of times they communicate with public officials 
is a matter of public record. A 2012 report found that a single industry 
organization — the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers — spoke with 
federal government officials 536 times between 2008 and 2012, while 
TransCanada, the company behind the Keystone XL pipeline, had 279 
communications. The Climate Action Network, on the other hand, the country's 
broadest coalition devoted to emission reductions, only logged six 
communications in the same period. In the U.K., the energy industry met with the 
Department of Energy and Climate Change roughly eleven times more frequently 
than green groups did during David Cameron's first year in office. In fact, it has 
become increasingly difficult to discern where the oil and gas industry ends and 
the British government begins. As The Guardian reported in 2011, "At least 50 
employees of companies including EDF Energy, npower and Centrica have been 
placed within government to work on energy issues in the past four years.. . . The 
staff are provided free of charge and work within the departments for secondments 
or up to two years. 

What all this money and access means is that every time the climate crisis 
rightfully triggers our collective self-preservation instinct, the incredible monetary 
power of the fossil fuel industry — driven by its own, more immediate self- 
preservation instinct — gets in the way. Environmentalists often speak about 
contemporary humanity as the proverbial frog in a pot ofboiling water, too 
accustomed to the gradual increases in heat to jump to safety. But the truth is that 
humanity has tried to jump quite a few times. In Rio in 1992. In Kyoto in 1997. In 
2006 and 2007, when global concern rose yet again after the release of An 
Inconvenient Truth and with the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Al Gore and 
the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. In 2009, in the lead up to the 
United Nations climate summit in Copenhagen. The problem is that the money that 


perverts the political process acts as a kind of lid, intercepting that survival instinct 
and keeping us all in the pot. 

The influence wielded by the fossil fuel lobby goes a long way toward 
explaining why the sector is so very unconcerned about the nonbinding 
commitments made by politicians at U.N. climate summits to keep temperatures 
below 2 degrees Celsius. Indeed the day the Copenhagen summit concluded — 
when the target was made official — the share prices of some of the largest fossil 
fuel companies hardly reacted at all.~ 

Clearly, intelligent investors had determined that the promises governments 
made in that forum were nothing to worry about — that they were not nearly as 
important as the actions of their powerful energy departments back home that grant 
mining and drilling permits. Indeed in March 2014, ExxonMobil confirmed as 
much when the company came under pressure from activist shareholders to 
respond to reports that much of its reserves would become stranded assets if 
governments kept promises to keep warming below 2 degrees by passing 
aggressive climate legislation. The company explained that it had determined that 
restrictive climate policies were "highly unlikely" and, "based on this analysis, we 
are confident that none of our hydrocarbon reserves are now or will become 
'stranded.' ,M 

Those working inside government understand these dynamics all too well. John 
Ashton, who served as special representative for climate change to three successive 
U.K. governments between 2006 and 2012, told me that he would often point out 
to his colleagues making energy policy that their approach to the development of 
fossil fuels contradicted the government's claim to be "running a 2 degree climate 
policy." But when he did, they "simply ignored my efforts and carried on as 
before — I might as well have been speaking in Attic Greek." From this Ashton 
concluded, "In government it is usually easy to rectify a slight misalignment 
between two policies but near impossible to resolve a complete contradiction. 
Where there is a contradiction, the forces of incumbency start with a massive 

This dynamic will shift only when the power (and wealth) of the fossil fuel 
industry is seriously eroded. Which is very tough to do: the handy thing about 
selling natural resources upon which entire economies have been built — and about 
having so far succeeded in blocking policies that would offer real alternatives — is 
that most people keep having to buy your products whether they like you or not. 
So since these companies are going to continue being rich for the foreseeable 


future, the best hope of breaking the political deadlock is to radically restrict their 
ability to spend their profits buying, and bullying, politicians. 

The good news for the climate movement is that there are a whole lot of other 
sectors that also have an active interest in curtailing the influence of money over 
politics, particularly in the U.S., the country that has been the most significant 
barrier to climate progress. After all, climate action has failed on Capitol Hill for 
the same reasons that serious financial sector reform didn't pass after the 2008 
meltdown and the same reasons gun reform didn't pass after the horrific 2012 
school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. Which in turn are the same reasons why 
Obama's health reform failed to take on the perverting influence of the medical 
insurance and pharmaceutical companies. All these attempts to fix glaring and 
fundamental flaws in the system have failed because large corporations wield far 
too much political power — a power exerted through corporate campaign 
contributions, many of them secret; through almost unfettered access to regulators 
via their lobbyists; through the notorious revolving door between business and 
government; as well as through the "free speech" rights these corporations have 
been granted by the U.S. Supreme Court. And though U.S. politics are particularly 
far gone in this regard, no Western democracy has a level playing field when it 
comes to political access and power. 

Because these distortions have been in place for so long — and harm so many 
diverse constituencies — a great many smart people have done a huge amount of 
thinking about what it would take to clean up the system. As with responses to 
climate change, the problem is not an absence of "solutions" — the solutions are 
clear. Politicians must be prohibited from receiving donations from the industries 
they regulate, or from acceptingjobs in lieu of bribes; political donations need to 
be both fully disclosed and tightly capped; campaigns must be given the right to 
access the public airwaves; and, ideally, elections should be publicly funded as a 
basic cost of having a democracy. 

Yet among large sections of the public, a sense of fatalism pervades: how can 
you convince politicians to vote for reforms designed to free them from the binds 
of corporate influence when those binds are still tightly in place? It's tough, to be 
sure, but the only thing politicians fear more than losing donations is losing 
elections. And this is where the power of climate change — and its potential for 
building the largest possible political tent — comes into play. As we have seen, the 
scientific warnings that we are running out of time to avert climate disaster are 
coming from a galaxy of credible scientific organizations and establishment 
international agencies — from the American Association for the Advancement of 


Science to NASA to Britain's Royal Society to the Intergovernmental Panel on 
Climate Change to the U.S. National Academy of Sciences to the World Bank to 
the International Energy Agency. A resurgent climate movement could use those 
warnings to light a fire under the call to kick corporate money out of politics — not 
just fossil fuel money, but money from all the deep-pocketed barriers to progress 
from the National Rifle Association to the fast food industry to the private-prison 
complex. Such a rallying cry could bring together all of the various constituencies 
that would benefit from reducing corporate power over politics — from health care 
workers to parents worried about their children's safety at school. There are no 
guarantees that this coalition could succeed where other attempts at similar reforms 
have failed. But it certainly seems worth expending at least as much energy and 
money as the U.S. climate movement did trying, unsuccessfully, to push through 
climate legislation that it knew was wholly inadequate, precisely because it was 
written to try to neutralize opposition from fossil fuel companies (more on that 

Not an "Issue," a Frame 

The link between challenging corruption and lowering emissions is just one 
example of how the climate emergency could — by virtue of its urgency and the 
fact that it impacts, well, everyone on earth — breathe new life into a political goal 
for which there is already a great deal of public support. The same holds true for 
many of the other issues discussed so far — from raising taxes on the rich to 
blocking harmful new trade deals to reinvesting in the public sphere. But before 
those kinds of alliances can be built, some very bad habits will need to be 

Environmentalists have a long history of behaving as if no issue is more 
important than the Big One — why, some wonder (too often out loud), is everyone 
wasting their time worrying about women's rights and poverty and wars when it's 
blindingly obvious that none of this matters if the planet decides to start ejecting 
us for poor behavior? When the first Earth Day was declared in 1970, one of the 
movement's leaders, Democratic senator Gaylord Nelson, declared that the 
environmental crisis made "Vietnam, nuclear war, hunger, decaying cities, and all 
other major problems one could name . . . relatively insignificant by comparison." 
Which helps explains why the great radical journalist I. F. Stone described Earth 
Day as "a gigantic snowjob" that was using "rock and roll, idealism and 


noninflammatory social issues to turn the youth off from more urgent concerns 


which might really threaten our power structure." 

They were both wrong. The environmental crisis — if conceived sufficiently 
broadly — neither trumps nor distracts from our most pressing political and 
economic causes: it supercharges each one of them with existential urgency. As 
Yotam Marom, an organizer with Occupy Wall Street in New York, wrote in July 
2013, "The fight for the climate isn't a separate movement, it's both a challenge 
and an opportunity for all of our movements. We don't need to become climate 
activists, we are climate activists. We don't need a separate climate movement; we 
need to seize the climate moment. "~~ The nature of the moment is familiar but bears 
repeating: whether or not industrialized countries begin deeply cutting our 
emissions this decade will determine whether we can expect the same from rapidly 
developing nations like China and India next decade. That, in turn, will determine 
whether or not humanity can stay within a collective carbon budget that will give 
us a decent chance of keeping warming below levels that our own governments 
have agreed are unacceptably dangerous. In other words, we don't have another 
couple of decades to talk about the changes we want while being satisfied with the 
occasional incremental victory. This set of hard facts calls for strategy, clear 
deadlines, dogged focus — all of which are sorely missing from most progressive 
movements at the moment. 

Even more importantly, the climate moment offers an overarching narrative in 
which everything from the fight for good jobs to justice for migrants to reparations 
for historical wrongs like slavery and colonialism can all become part of the grand 
project of building a nontoxic, shockproof economy before it's too late. 

And it is also worth remembering because it's so very easy to forget: the 
alternative to such a project is not the status quo extended indefinitely. It is climate- 
change-fueled disaster capitalism — profiteering disguised as emission reduction, 
privatized hyper- militarized borders, and, quite possibly, high-risk geoengineering 
when things spiral out of control. 

So how realistic is it to imagine that the climate crisis could be a political game 
changer, a unifier for all these disparate issues and movements? Well, there is a 
reason hard-right conservatives are putting so much effort into denying its 
existence. Their political project is not, after all, as sturdy as it was in 1988, when 
climate change first pierced public consciousness. Free market ideology may still 
bind the imaginations of our elites, but for most of the general public, it has been 
drained of its powers to persuade. The disastrous track record of the past three 
decades of neoliberal policy is simply too apparent. Each new blast of statistics 


about how a tiny band of global oligarchs controls half the world's wealth exposes 
the policies of privatization and deregulation for the thinly veiled license to steal 
that they always were. Each new report of factory fires in Bangladesh, soaring 
pollution in China, and water cut-offs in Detroit reminds us that free trade was 
exactly the race to the bottom that so many warned it would be. And each news 
story about an Italian or Greek pensioner who took his or her own life rather than 
try to survive under another round of austerity is a reminder of how many lives 
continue to be sacrificed for the few. 

The failure of deregulated capitalism to deliver on its promises is why, since 
2009, public squares around the world have turned into rotating semipermanent 
encampments of the angry and dispossessed. It's also why there are now more calls 
for fundamental change than at any point since the 1960s. It's why a challenging 
book like Thomas Piketty's Capital in the Twenty-First Century, exposing the 
built-in structures of ever-increasingwealth concentration, can sit atop bestseller 
lists for months, and why when comedian and social commentator Russell Brand 
went on the BBC and called for "revolution," his appearance attracted more than 
ten million YouTube views. 

Climate change pits what the planet needs to maintain stability against what our 
economic model needs to sustain itself. But since that economic model is failing 
the vast majority of the people on the planet on multiple fronts that might not be 
such a bad thing. Put another way, if there has ever been a moment to advance a 
plan to heal the planet that also heals our broken economies and our shattered 
communities, this is it. 

Al Gore called climate change "an inconvenient truth," which he defined as an 
inescapable fact that we would prefer to ignore. Yet the truth about climate change 
is inconvenient only if we are satisfied with the status quo except for the small 
matter of warming temperatures. If, however, we see the need for transformation 
quite apart from those warming temperatures, then the fact that our current road is 
headed toward a cliff is, in an odd way, convenient — because it tells us that we had 
better start making that sweeping turn, and fast. 

Not surprisingly, the people who understand this best are those whom our 
economic model has always been willing to sacrifice. The environmental justice 
movement, the loose network of groups working with communities on the toxic 
front lines of extractive industries — next to refineries, for instance, or downstream 
from mines — has always argued that a robust response to emission reduction could 
form the basis of a transformative economic project. In fact the slogan long 


embraced by this movement has been "System Change, Not Climate Change" — a 


recognition that these are the two choices we face. 

"The climate justice fight here in the U.S. and around the world is not just a fight 
against the [biggest] ecological crisis of all time," Miya Yoshitani, executive 
director of the Oakland-based Asian Pacific Environmental Network (APEN), 
explains. "It is the fight for a new economy, a new energy system, a new 
democracy, a new relationship to the planet and to each other, for land, water, and 
food sovereignty, for Indigenous rights, for human rights and dignity for all people. 
When climate justice wins we win the world that we want. We can't sit this one 
out, not because we have too much to lose but because we have too much to 
gain.... We are bound together in this battle, not just for a reduction in the parts 
per million of CO2, but to transform our economies and rebuild a world that we 

1 „68 

want today. 

This is what many liberal commentators get wrong when they assume that 
climate action is futile because it asks us to sacrifice in the name of far-off benefits. 
"How can you persuade the human race to put the future ahead of the present?" 


askedObserver columnist Nick Cohen despondently. The answer is that you 
don't. You point out, as Yoshitani does, that for a great many people, climate 
action is their best hope for a better present, and a future far more exciting than 
anything else currently on offer. 

Yoshitani is part of a vibrant activist scene in the San Francisco Bay Area that 
is ground zero of the green jobs movement most prominently championed by 
former Obama advisor Van Jones. When I first met Yoshitani, the Asian Pacific 
Environmental Network was working closely with Asian immigrants in Oakland 
to demand affordable housing close to a mass transit station to make sure that 
gentrification didn't displace the people who actually use subways and buses. And 
APEN has also been part of an initiative to help create worker co-ops in the solar 
energy sector in nearby Richmond, so that there are jobs on offer other than the 
ones at the local Chevron oil refinery. 

More such connections between climate action and economic justice are being 
made all the time. As we will see, communities trying to stop dangerous oil 
pipelines or natural gas fracking are building powerful new alliances with 
Indigenous peoples whose territories are also at risk from these activities. And 
several large environmental organizations in the U.S. — including Greenpeace, the 
Sierra Club, the BlueGreen Alliance, and — took stands in support of 
demands for comprehensive reform of the U.S. immigration system, in part 
because migration is increasingly linked to climate and also because members of 


immigrant communities are often prevented from defending themselves against 
heightened environmental risks since doing so could lead to incarceration or 



These are encouraging signs, and there are plenty of others. Yet the kind of 
counter-power that has a chance of changing society on anything close to the scale 
required is still missing. It is a painful irony that while the right is forever casting 
climate change as a left-wing plot, most leftists and liberals are still averting their 
eyes, having yet to grasp that climate science has handed them the most powerful 
argument against unfettered capitalism since William Blake's "dark Satanic Mills" 
blackened England's skies (which, incidentally, was the beginning of climate 
change). By all rights, this reality should be filling progressive sails with 
conviction, lending new confidence to the demands for a more just economic 
model. And yet when demonstrators are protesting the various failures of this 
system in Athens, Madrid, Istanbul, and New York, climate change is too often 


little more than a footnote when it could be the coup de grace. 

The mainstream environmental movement, meanwhile, generally stands apart 
from these expressions of mass frustration, choosing to define climate activism 
narrowly — demanding a carbon tax, say, or even trying to stop a pipeline. And 
those campaigns are important. But building a mass movement that has a chance 
of taking on the corporate forces arrayed against science-based emission reduction 
will require the broadest possible spectrum of allies. That would include the public 
sector workers — firefighters, nurses, teachers, garbage collectors — fighting to 
protect the services and infrastructure that will be our best protection against 
climate change. It would include antipoverty activists trying to protect affordable 
housing in downtown cores, rather than allowing low-income people to be pushed 
by gentrification into sprawling peripheries that require more driving. As Colin 
Miller of Oakland-based Bay Localize told me, "Housing is a climate issue." And 
it would include transit riders fighting against fare increases at a time when we 
should be doing everything possible to make subways and buses more comfortable 
and affordable for all. Indeed when masses of people take to the streets to stop such 
fare hikes and demand free public transit — as they did in Brazil in June and July 
of 2013 — these actions should be welcomed as part of a global effort to fight 
climate chaos, even if those populist movements never once use the words "climate 


change." Perhaps it should be no surprise that a sustained and populist climate 
movement has not yet emerged — a movement like that has yet to be sustained to 
counter any of the other failures of this economic model. Yes, there have been 
periods when mass outrage in the face of austerity, corruption, and inequality has 


spilled into the streets and the squares for weeks and months on end. Yet if the 
recent years of rapid-fire rebellions havedemonstrated anything, it is that these 
movements are snuffed out far too quickly, whether by repression or political 
cooptation, while the structures they opposed reconstitute themselves in more 
terrifying and dangerous forms. Witness Egypt. Or the inequalities that have grown 
even more obscene since the 2008 economic crisis, despite the many movements 
that rose up to resist the bailouts and austerity measures. 

I have, in the past, strongly defended the right of young movements to their 
amorphous structures — whether that means rejecting identifiable leadership or 
eschewing programmatic demands. And there is no question that old political 
habits and structures must be reinvented to reflect new realities, as well as past 
failures. But I confess that the last five years immersed in climate science has left 
me impatient. As many are coming to realize, the fetish for structurelessness, the 
rebellion against any kind of institutionalization, is not a luxury today's 
transformative movements can afford. 

The core of the problem comes back to the same inescapable fact that has both 
blocked climate action and accelerated emissions: all of us are living in the world 
that neoliberalism built, even if we happen to be critics of neoliberalism. 

In practice that means that, despite endless griping, tweeting, flash mobbing, and 
occupying, we collectively lack many of the tools that built and sustained the 
transformative movements of the past. Our public institutions are disintegrating, 
while the institutions of the traditional left — progressive political parties, strong 
unions, membership-based community service organizations — are fighting for 
their lives. 

And the challenge goes deeper than a lack of institutional tools and reaches into 
our very selves. Contemporary capitalism has not just accelerated the behaviors 
that are changing the climate. This economic model has changed a great many of 
us as individuals, accelerated and uprooted and dematerialized us as surely as it 
has finance capital, leaving us at once everywhere and nowhere. These are the 
hand-wringing cliches of our time — What is Twitter doing to my attention span? 
What are screens doing to our relationships? — but the preoccupations have 
particular relevance to the way we relate to the climate challenge. 

Because this is a crisis that is, by its nature, slow moving and intensely place 
based. In its early stages, and in between the wrenching disasters, climate is about 
an early blooming of a particular flower, an unusually thin layer of ice on a lake, 
the late arrival of a migratory bird — noticing these small changes requires the kind 
of communion that comes from knowing a place deeply, not just as scenery but 


also as sustenance, and when local knowledge is passed on with a sense of sacred 
trust from one generation to the next. How many of us still live like that? Similarly, 
climate change is also about the inescapable impact of the actions of past 
generations not just on the present, but on generations in the future. These time 
frames are a language that has become foreign to a great many of us. Indeed 
Western culture has worked very hard to erase Indigenous cosmologies that call 
on the past and the future to interrogate present-day actions, with long-dead 
ancestors always present, alongside the generations yet to come. 

In short: more bad timing. Just when we needed to slow down and notice the 
subtle changes in the natural world that are telling us that something is seriously 
amiss, we have sped up; just when we needed longer time horizons to see how the 
actions of our past impact the prospects for our future, we entered into the never- 
ending feed of the perpetual now, slicing and dicing our attention spans as never 

To understand how we got to this place of profound disconnection from our 
surroundings and one another, and to think about how we might build a politics 
based on reconnection, we will need to go back a good deal further than 1988. 
Because the truth is that, while contemporary, hyper-globalized capitalism has 
exacerbated the climate crisis, it did not create it. We started treating the 
atmosphere as our waste dump when we began using coal on a commercial scale 
in the late 1700s and engaged in similarly reckless ecological practices well before 

Moreover, humans have behaved in this shortsighted way not only under 
capitalist systems, but under systems that called themselves socialist as well 
(whether they were or not remains a subject of debate). Indeed the roots of the 
climate crisis date back to core civilizational myths on which post-Enlightenment 
Western culture is founded — myths about humanity's duty to dominate a natural 
world that is believed to be at once limitless and entirely controllable. This is not 
a problem that can be blamed on the political right or on the United States; these 
are powerful cultural narratives that transcend geography and ideological divides. 

I have, so far, emphasized the familiarity of many of the deep solutions to the 
climate crisis and there is real comfort to take from that. It means that in many of 
our key responses, we would not be embarking on this tremendous project from 
scratch but rather drawing on more than a century of progressive work. But truly 
rising to the climate challenge — particularly its challenge to economic growth — 
will require that we dig even deeper into our past, and move into some distinctly 
uncharted political territory. 


~ Workers in the U.S. and Europe have attempted to emulate this model in recent years during several plant 
closures, most notably the high-profile Republic Windows and Doors factory in Chicago, which was shut 
down during the economic crisis and then occupied by its workers. Today many of those former employees 
are now worker-owners at the reborn New Era Windows Cooperative. 

~ Much of the support for nuclear power as a solution to global warming is based on the promise of "next 
generation" nuclear technologies, which range from more efficient reactors cooled with gas instead of 
water, to "fast reactor" designs that can run on spent fuel or "breed" more fuel in addition to consuming 
it — or even nuclear fusion, in which atomic nuclei are forced together (as occurs in the sun) rather than 
split. Boosters of these groundbreaking technologies assure us that they eliminate many of the risks 
currently associated with nuclear energy, from meltdowns to longterm waste storage to weaponization of 
enriched uranium. And perhaps they do have the potential to eliminate some of those risks. But since these 
technologies are untested, and some may carry even greater risks, the onus is on the boosters, not on the 
rest of us, to demonstrate their safety. All the more so because we have proven clean, renewable 
technologies available, and democratic, participatory models for their implementation, that demand no such 

~ There is a great deal of confusion about the climate benefits of natural gas because the fuel is often given 
credit for a 12 percent drop in U.S. carbon dioxide emissions since 2007. But this good news does not 
address the fact that methane emissions have been rising over the past decade, or the fact that U.S. methane 
emissions are very likely underestimated, since leakage has been extremely poorly accounted for. 
Moreover, many experts and modelers warn that any climate gains from the shale boom will continue to be 
undercut not only by potent methane emissions, but also by the tendency of cheap natural gas to displace 
wind and solar. Similarly, as coal generation is displaced by natural gas in the U.S., coal companies are 
simply exporting their dirty product overseas, which according to one analysis by the CO2 Scorecard Group 
has "more than offset" the emissions savings from natural gas since 2007. 




Confronting the Climate Denier Within 

"The best thing about the Earth is if you poke holes in it oil and gas comes 

-Republican U.S. Congressman Steve Stockman, 20 13 1 
"The open veins of Latin America are still bleeding." 


-Bolivian Indigenous leader Nilda Rojas Huanca, 2014" 

"It is our predicament that we live in a finite world, and yet we behave 
as if it were infinite. Steady exponential material growth with no limits 
on resource consumption and population is the dominant conceptual 
model used by today's decision makers. This is an approximation of 
reality that is no longer accurate and [has] started to break down." 

-Global systems analyst Rodrigo Castro and colleagues, paper presented at a 


scientific modeling conference, 2014 

For the past few years, the island of Nauru has been on a health kick. The concrete 
walls of public buildings are covered in murals urging regular exercise and healthy 
eating, and warning against the danger of diabetes. Young people are asking their 
grandparents how to fish, a lost skill. But there is a problem. As Nerida-Ann 
Steshia Hubert, who works at a diabetes center on the island, explains, life spans 
on Nauru are short, in part because of an epidemic of the disease. "The older folks 
are passing away early and we're losing a lot of the knowledge with them. It's like 


a race against time — trying to get the knowledge from them before they die." 

For decades, this tiny, isolated South Pacific island, just twenty-one square 
kilometers and home to ten thousand people, was held up as a model for the 


world — a developing country that was doing everything right. In the early 1960s, 
the Australian government, whose troops seized control of Nauru from the 
Germans in 1914, was so proud of its protectorate that it made promotional videos 
showing the Micronesians in starched white Bermuda shorts, obediently following 
lessons in English-speaking schools, settling their disputes in British-style courts, 
and shopping for modern conveniences in well-stocked grocery stores. 

During the 1970s and 1980s, after Nauru had earned independence, the island 
was periodically featured in press reports as a place of almost obscene riches, much 
as Dubai is invoked today. An Associated Press article from 1985 reported that 
Nauruans had "the world's highest per capita gross national product . . . higher even 
than Persian Gulf oil Sheikdoms." Everyone had free health care, housing, and 
education; homes were kept cool with air-conditioning; and residents zoomed 
around their tiny island — it took twenty minutes to make the entire loop — in brand- 
new cars and motorcycles. A police chief famously bought himself a yellow 
Lamborghini. "When I was young," recalls Steshia Hubert, "we would go to 
parties where people would throw thousands of dollars on the babies. Extravagant 
parties — first, sixteenth, eighteenth, twenty-first, and fiftieth birthdays.... They 
would come with gifts like cars, pillows stuffed with hundred-dollar bills — for 
one-year-old babies!" 

All of Nauru's monetary wealth derived from an odd geological fact. For 
hundreds of thousands of years, when the island was nothing but a cluster of coral 
reefs protruding from the waves, Nauru was a popular pit stop for migrating birds, 
who dropped by to feast on the shellfish and mollusks. Gradually, the bird poop 
built up between the coral towers and spires, eventually hardening to form a rocky 
landmass. The rock was then covered over in topsoil and dense forest, creating a 
tropical oasis of coconut palms, tranquil beaches, and thatched huts so beatific that 


the first European visitors dubbed the island Pleasant Isle. 

For thousands of years, Nauruans lived on the surface of their island, sustaining 
themselves on fish and black noddy birds. That began to change when a colonial 
officer picked up a rock that was later discovered to be made of almost pure 
phosphate of lime, a valuable agricultural fertilizer. A German-British firm began 
mining, later replaced by a British-Australian-New Zealand venture. Nauru 
started developing at record speed — the catch was that it was, simultaneously, 
commiting suicide. 

By the 1960s, Nauru still looked pleasant enough when approached from the 
sea, but it was a mirage. Behind the narrow fringe of coconut palms circling the 
coast lay a ravaged interior. Seen from above, the forest and topsoil of the oval 


island were being voraciously stripped away; the phosphate mined down to the 
island's sharply protruding bones, leaving behind a forest of ghostly coral totems. 
With the center now uninhabitable and largely infertile except for some minor 
scrubby vegetation, life on Nauru unfolded along the thin coastal strip, where the 


homes and civic structures were located. 

Nauru's successive waves of colonizers — whose economic emissaries ground 
up the phosphate rock into fine dust, then shipped it on ocean liners to fertilize soil 
in Australia and New Zealand — had a simple plan for the country: they would keep 
mining phosphate until the island was an empty shell. "When the phosphate supply 
is exhausted in thirty to forty years' time, the experts predict that the estimated 
population will not be able to live on this pleasant little island," a Nauruan council 
member said, rather stiffly, in a sixties-era black-and-white video produced by the 
Australian government. But not to worry, the film's narrator explained: 
"Preparations are being made now for the future of the Nauruan people. Australia 
has offered them a permanent home within her own shores.. . . Their prospects are 
bright; their future is secure." 

Nauru, in other words, was developed to disappear, designed by the Australian 
government and the extractive companies that controlled its fate as a disposable 
country. It's not that they had anything against the place, no genocidal intent per 
se. It's just that one dead island that few even knew existed seemed like an 
acceptable sacrifice to make in the name of the progress represented by industrial 

When the Nauruans themselves took control of their country in 1968, they had 
hopes of reversing these plans. Toward that end, they put a large chunk of their 
mining revenues into a trust fund that they invested in what seemed like stable real 
estate ventures in Australia and Hawaii. The goal was to live off the fund's 
proceeds while winding down phosphate mining and beginning to rehabilitate their 
island's ecology — a costly task, but perhaps not impossible. 

The plan failed. Nauru's government received catastrophically bad investment 
advice, and the country's mining wealth was squandered. Meanwhile, Nauru 
continued to disappear, its white powdery innards loaded onto boats as the mining 
continued unabated. Meanwhile, decades of easy money had taken a predictable 
toll on Nauruans' life and culture. Politics was rife with corruption, drunk driving 
was a leading cause of death, average life expectancy was dismally low, and Nauru 
earned the dubious honor of being featured on a U.S. news show as "the fattest 
place on Earth" (half the adult population suffers from type 2 diabetes, the result 
of a diet comprised almost exclusively of imported processed food). "During the 


golden era when the royalties were rolling in, we didn't cook, we ate in 
restaurants," recalls Steshia Hubert, a health care worker. And even if the Nauruans 
had wanted to eat differently, it would have been hard: with so much of the island 
a latticework of deep dark holes, growing enough fresh produce to feed the 
population was pretty much impossible. A bitterly ironic infertility for an island 


whose main export was agricultural fertilizer. 

By the 1990s, Nauru was so desperate for foreign currency that it pursued some 
distinctly shady get-rich-quick schemes. Aided greatly by the wave of financial 
deregulation unleashed in this period, the island became a prime money-laundering 
haven. For a time in the late 1990s, Nauru was the titular "home" to roughly four 
hundred phantom banks that were utterly unencumbered by monitoring, oversight, 
taxes, and regulation. Nauru-registered shell banks were particularly popular 
among Russian gangsters, who reportedly laundered a staggering $70 billion of 
dirty money through the island nation (to put that in perspective, Nauru's entire 
GDP is $72 million, according to most recent figures). Giving the country partial 
credit for the collapse of the Russian economy, a New York Times Magazinepiece 
in 2000 pronounced that "amid the recent proliferation of money-laundering 
centers that experts estimate has ballooned into a $5 trillion shadow economy, 


Nauru is Public Enemy #1." 

These schemes have since caught up with Nauru too, and now the country faces 
a double bankruptcy: with 90 percent of the island depleted from mining, it faces 
ecological bankruptcy; with a debt of at least $800 million, Nauru faces financial 
bankruptcy as well. But these are not Nauru's only problems. It now turns out that 
the island nation is highly vulnerable to a crisis it had virtually no hand in creating: 
climate change and the drought, ocean acidification, and rising waters it brings. 
Sea levels around Nauru have been steadily climbing by about 5 millimeters per 
year since 1993, and much more could be on the way if current trends continue. 


Intensified droughts are already causing severe freshwater shortages. 

A decade ago, Australian philosopher and professor of sustainability Glenn 
Albrecht set out to coin a term to capture the particular form of psychological 
distress that sets in when the homelands that we love and from which we take 
comfort are radically altered by extraction and industrialization, rendering them 
alienating and unfamiliar. He settled on "solastalgia," with its evocations of solace, 
destruction, and pain, and defined the new word to mean, "the homesickness you 
have when you are still at home." He explained that although this particular form 
of unease was once principally familiar to people who lived in sacrifice zones — 
lands decimated by open-pit mining, for instance, or clear-cut logging — it was fast 


becoming a universal human experience, with climate change creating a "new 
abnormal" wherever we happen to live. "As bad as local and regional negative 
transformation is, it is the big picture, the Whole Earth, which is now a home under 
assault. A feeling of global dread asserts itself as the planet heats and our climate 
gets more hostile and unpredictable," he writes. 15 

Some places are unlucky enough to experience both local and global solastalgia 
simultaneously. Speaking to the 1997 U.N. climate conference that adopted the 
Kyoto Protocol, Nauru's then-president Kinza Clodumar described the collective 
claustrophobia that had gripped his country: "We are trapped, a wasteland at our 
back, and to our front a terrifying, rising flood of biblical proportions." 1 ^ Few 
places on earth embody the suicidal results of building our economies on polluting 
extraction more graphically than Nauru. Thanks to its mining of phosphate, Nauru 
has spent the last century disappearing from the inside out; now, thanks to our 
collective mining of fossil fuels, it is disappearing from the outside in. 

In a 2007 cable about Nauru, made public by WikiLeaks, an unnamed U.S. 
official summed up his government's analysis of what went wrong on the island: 


"Nauru simply spent extravagantly, never worrying about tomorrow." Fair 
enough, but that diagnosis is hardly unique to Nauru; our entire culture is 
extravagantly drawing down finite resources, never worrying about tomorrow. For 
a couple of hundred years we have been telling ourselves that we can dig the 
midnight black remains of other life forms out of the bowels of the earth, burn 
them in massive quantities, and that the airborne particles and gases released into 
the atmosphere — because we can't see them — will have no effect whatsoever. Or 
if they do, we humans, brilliant as we are, will just invent our way out of whatever 
mess we have made. 

And we tell ourselves all kinds of similarly implausible no-consequences stories 
all the time, about how we can ravage the world and suffer no adverse effects. 
Indeed we are always surprised when it works out otherwise. We extract and do 
not replenish and wonder why the fish have disappeared and the soil requires ever 
more "inputs" (like phosphate) to stay fertile. We occupy countries and arm their 
militias and then wonder why they hate us. We drive down wages, ship jobs 
overseas, destroy worker protections, hollow out local economies, then wonder 
why people can't afford to shop as much as they used to. We offer those failed 
shoppers subprime mortgages instead of steady jobs and then wonder why no one 
foresaw that a system built on bad debts would collapse. 

At every stage our actions are marked by a lack of respect for the powers we are 
unleashing — a certainty, or at least a hope, that the nature we have turned to 


garbage, and the people we have treated like garbage, will not come back to haunt 
us. And Nauru knows all about this too, because in the past decade it has become 
a dumping ground of another sort. In an effort to raise much needed revenue, it 
agreed to house an offshore refugee detention center for the government of 
Australia. In what has become known as "the Pacific Solution," Australian navy 
and customs ships intercept boats of migrants and immediately fly them three 
thousand kilometers to Nauru (as well as to several other Pacific islands). Once on 
Nauru, the migrants — most from Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Iraq, Iran, and 
Pakistan — are crammed into a rat-infested guarded camp made up of rows of 
crowded, stiflingly hot tents. The island imprisonment can last up to five years, 
with the migrants in a state of constant limbo about their status, something the 


Australian government hopes will serve as a deterrent to future refugees. 

The Australian and Nauruan governments have gone to great lengths to limit 
information on camp conditions and have prevented journalists who make the long 
journey to the island from seeing where migrants are being housed. But the truth 
is leaking out nonetheless: grainy video of prisoners chanting "We are not 
animals"; reports of mass hunger strikes and suicide attempts; horrifying 
photographs of refugees who had sewn their own mouths shut, using paper clips 
as needles; an image of a man who had badly mutilated his neck in a failed hanging 
attempt. There are also images of toddlers playing in the dirt and huddling with 
their parents under tent flaps for shade (originally the camp had housed only adult 
males, but now hundreds of women and children have been sent there too). In June 
2013, the Australian government finally allowed a BBC crew into the camp in 
order to show off its brand-new barracks — but that PR attempt was completely 
upstaged one month later by the news that a prisoner riot had almost completely 


destroyed the new facility, leaving several prisoners injured. 

Amnesty International has called the camp on Nauru "cruel" and "degrading," 
and a 2013 report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees 
concluded that those conditions, "coupled with the protracted period spent there 
by some asylum-seekers, raise serious issues about their compatibility with 
international human rights law, including the prohibition against torture and cruel, 
inhuman or degrading treatment." Then, in March 2014, a former Salvation Army 
employee named Mark Isaacs, who had been stationed at the camp, published a 
tell-all memoir titled The Undesirables. He wrote about men who had survived 
wars and treacherous voyages losing all will to live on Nauru, with one man 
resorting to swallowing cleaning fluids, another driven mad and barking like a dog. 
Isaacs likened the camp to "death factories," and said in an interview that it is about 


"taking resilient men and grinding them into the dust." On an island that itself was 
systematically ground to dust, it's a harrowing image. As harrowing as enlisting 
the people who could very well be the climate refugees of tomorrow to play warden 


to the political and economic refugees of today. 

Reviewing the island's painful history, it strikes me that so much of what has 
gone wrong on Nauru — and goes on still — has to do with its location, frequently 
described as "the middle of nowhere" or, in the words of a 1921 National 
Geographicdispatch, "perhaps the most remote territory in the world," a tiny dot 
"in lonely seas." The nation's remoteness made it aconvenient trash can — a place 
to turn the land into trash, to launder dirty money, to disappear unwanted people, 


and now a place that may be allowed to disappear altogether. 

This is our relationship to much that we cannot easily see and it is a big part of 
what makes carbon pollution such a stubborn problem: we can't see it, so we don't 
really believe it exists. Ours is a culture of disavowal, of simultaneously knowing 
and not knowing — the illusion of proximity coupled with the reality of distance is 
the trick perfected by the fossil-fueled global market. So we both know and don't 
know who makes our goods, who cleans up after us, where our waste disappears 
to — whether it's our sewage or electronics or our carbon emissions. 

But what Nauru's fate tells us is that there is no middle of nowhere, nowhere 
that doesn't "count" — and that nothing ever truly disappears. On some level we all 
know this, that we are part of a swirling web of connections. Yet we are trapped in 
linear narratives that tell us the opposite: that we can expand infinitely, that there 
will always be more space to absorb our waste, more resources to fuel our wants, 
more people to abuse. 

These days, Nauru is in a near constant state of political crisis, with fresh 
corruption scandals perpetually threatening to bring down the government, and 
sometimes succeeding. Given the wrong visited upon the nation, the island's 
leaders would be well within their rights to point fingers outward — at their former 
colonial masters who flayed them, at the investors who fleeced them, and at the 
rich countries whose emissions now threaten to drown them. And some do. But 
several of Nauru's leaders have also chosen to do something else: to hold up their 
country as a kind of warning to a warming world. 

In The New York Times in 2011, for instance, then-president Marcus Stephen 
wrote that Nauru provides "an indispensable cautionary tale about life in a place 
with hard ecological limits." It shows, he claimed, "what can happen when a 
country runs out of options. The world is headed down a similar path with the 
relentless burning of coal and oil, which is altering the planet's climate, melting 


ice caps, making oceans more acidic and edging us ever closer to a day when no 
one will be able to take clean water, fertile soil or abundant food for granted." In 


other words, Nauru isn't the only one digging itself to death; we all are. 

But the lesson Nauru has to teach is not only about the dangers of fossil fuel 
emissions. It is about the mentality that allowed so many of us, and our ancestors, 
to believe that we could relate to the earth with such violence in the first place — 
to dig and drill out the substances we desired while thinking little of the trash left 
behind, whether in the land and water where the extraction takes place, or in the 
atmosphere, once the extracted material is burned. This carelessness is at the core 
of an economic model some political scientists call "extractivism," a term 
originally used to describe economies based on removing ever more raw materials 
from the earth, usually for export to traditional colonial powers, where "value" was 
added. And it's a habit of thought that goes a long way toward explaining why an 
economic model based on endless growth ever seemed viable in the first place. 
Though developed under capitalism, governments across the ideological spectrum 
now embrace this resource-depleting model as a road to development, and it is this 
logic that climate change calls profoundly into question. 

Extractivism is a nonreciprocal, dominance-based relationship with the earth, 
one purely of taking. It is the opposite of stewardship, which involves taking but 
also taking care that regeneration and future life continue. Extractivism is the 
mentality of the mountaintop remover and the old-growth clear-cutter. It is the 
reduction of life into objects for the use of others, giving them no integrity or value 
of their own — turning living complex ecosystems into "natural resources," 
mountains into "overburden" (as the mining industry terms the forests, rocks, and 
streams that get in the way of its bulldozers). It is also the reduction of human 
beings either into labor to be brutally extracted, pushed beyond limits, or, 
alternatively, into social burden, problems to be locked out at borders and locked 
away in prisons or reservations. In an extractivist economy, the interconnections 
among these various objectified components of life are ignored; the consequences 
of severing them are of no concern. 

Extractivism is also directly connected to the notion of sacrifice zones — places 
that, to their extractors, somehow don't count and therefore can be poisoned, 
drained, or otherwise destroyed, for the supposed greater good of economic 
progress. This toxic idea has always been intimately tied to imperialism, with 
disposable peripheries being harnessed to feed a glittering center, and it is bound 
up too with notions of racial superiority, because in order to have sacrifice zones, 
you need to have people and cultures who count so little that they are considered 


deserving of sacrifice. Extractivism ran rampant under colonialism because 
relating to the world as a frontier of conquest — rather than as home — fosters this 
particular brand of irresponsibility. The colonial mind nurtures the belief that there 
is always somewhere else to go to and exploit once the current site of extraction 
has been exhausted. 

These ideas predate industrial- scale extraction of fossil fuels. And yet the ability 
to harness the power of coal to power factories and ships is what, more than any 
single other factor, enabled these dangerous ideas to conquer the world. It's a 
history worth exploring in more depth, because it goes a long way toward 
explaining how the climate crisis challenges not only capitalism but the underlying 
civilizational narratives about endless growth and progress within which we are 
all, in one way or another, still trapped. 

The Ultimate Extractivist Relationship 

If the modern-day extractive economy has a patron saint, the honor should 
probably go to Francis Bacon. The English philosopher, scientist, and statesman is 
credited with convincing Britain's elites to abandon, once and for all, pagan 
notions of the earth as a life-giving mother figure to whom we owe respect and 
reverence (and more than a little fear) and accept the role as her dungeon master. 
"For you have but to follow and as it were hound nature in her wanderings," Bacon 
wrote in De Augmentis Scientiarum in 1623, "and you will be able, when you like, 
to lead and drive her afterwards to the same place again. . . . Neither ought a man to 
make scruple of entering and penetrating into these holes and corners, when the 


inquisition of truth is his sole object."^ (Not surprisingly, feminist scholars have 
filled volumes analyzing the ex-Lord Chancellor's metaphor choices.) 

These ideas of a completely knowable and controllable earth animated not only 
the Scientific Revolution but, critically, the colonial project as well, which sent 
ships crisscrossing the globe to poke and prod and bring the secrets, and wealth, 
back to their respective crowns. The mood of human invincibility that governed 
this epoch was neatly encapsulated in the words of clergyman and philosopher 
William Derham in his 1713 bookPhysico-Theology: "We can, if need be, ransack 
the whole globe, penetrate into the bowels of the earth, descend to the bottom of 


the deep, travel to the farthest regions of this world, to acquire wealth." 

And yet despite this bravado, throughout the 1700s, the twin projects of 
colonialism and industrialization were still constrained by nature on several key 


fronts. Ships carrying both slaves and the raw materials they harvested could sail 
only when winds were favorable, which could lead to long delays in the supply 
chain. The factories that turned those raw materials into finished products were 
powered by huge water wheels. They needed to be located next to waterfalls or 
rapids which made them dependent on the flow and levels of rivers. As with high 
or low winds at sea, an especially dry or wet spell meant that working hours in the 
textile, flour, and sugar mills had to be adjusted accordingly — a mounting 
annoyance as markets expanded and became more global. 

Many water-powered factories were, by necessity, spread out around the 
countryside, near bodies of fast-moving water. As the Industrial Revolution 
matured and workers in the mills started to strike and even riot for better wages 
and conditions, this decentralization made factory owners highly vulnerable, since 
quickly finding replacement workers in rural areas was difficult. 

Beginning in 1776, a Scottish engineer named James Watt perfected and 
manufactured a power source that offered solutions to all these vulnerabilities. 
Lawyer and historian Barbara Freese describes Watt's steam engine as "perhaps 
the most important invention in the creation of the modern world" — and with good 


reason. By adding a separate condenser, air pump, and later a rotary mechanism 
to an older model, Watt was able to make the coal-fired steam engine vastly more 
powerful and adaptable than its predecessors. In contrast, the new machines could 
power a broad range of industrial operations, including, eventually, boats. 

For the first couple of decades, the new engine was a tough sell. Water power, 
after all, had a lot going for it compared with coal. For one thing, it was free, while 
coal needed to be continually re-purchased. And contrary to the widespread belief 
that the steam engine provided more energy than water wheels, the two were 
actually comparable, with the larger wheelspacking several times more 
horsepower than their coal-powered rivals. Water wheels also operated more 
smoothly, with fewer technical breakdowns, so long as the water was flowing. 
"The transition from water to steam in the British cotton industry did not occur 
because water was scarce, less powerful, or more expensive than steam," writes 
Swedish coal expert Andreas Malm. "To the contrary, steam gained supremacy in 
spite of water being abundant, at least as powerful, and decidedly cheaper," 

As Britain's urban population ballooned, two factors tipped the balance in favor 
of the steam engine. The first was the new machine's insulation from nature's 
fluctuations: unlike water wheels, steam engines worked at the same rate all the 
time, so long as there was coal to feed them and the machinery wasn't broken. The 
flow rates of rivers were of no concern. Steam engines also worked anywhere, 


regardless of the geography, which meant that factory owners could shift 
production from more remote areas to cities like London, Manchester, and 
Lancaster, where there were gluts of willing industrial workers, making it far easier 
to fire troublemakers and put down strikes. As an 1832 article written by a British 
economist explained, "The invention of the steam-engine has relieved us from the 
necessity of building factories in inconvenient situations merely for the sake of a 
waterfall." Or as one of Watt's early biographers put it, the generation of power 
"will no longer depend, as heretofore, on the most inconstant of natural causes — 


on atmospheric influences." 

Similarly, when Watt's engine was installed in a boat, ship crews were liberated 
from having to adapt their journeys to the winds, a development that rapidly 
accelerated the colonial project and the ability of European powers to easily annex 
countries in distant lands. As the Earl of Liverpool put it in a public meeting to 
memorialize James Watt in 1824, "Be the winds friendly or be they contrary, the 
power of the Steam Engine overcomes all difficulties.... Let the wind blow from 
whatever quarter it may, let the destination of our force be to whatever part of the 
world it may, you have the power and the means, by the Steam Engine, of applying 


that force at the proper time and in the proper manner."^ Not until the advent of 
electronic trading would commerce feel itself so liberated from the constraints of 
living on a planet bound by geography and governed by the elements. 

Unlike the energy it replaced, power from fossil fuel always required sacrifice 
zones — whether in the black lungs of the coal miners or the poisoned waterways 
surrounding the mines. But these prices were seen as worth paying in exchange for 
coal's intoxicating promise of freedom from the physical world — a freedom that 
unleashed industrial capitalism's full force to dominate both workers and other 
cultures. With their portable energy creator, the industrialists and colonists of the 
1800s could now go wherever labor was cheapest and most exploitable, and 
wherever resources were most plentiful and valuable. As the author of a steam 
engine manual wrote in the mid- 1830s, "Its mighty services are always at our 
command, whether in winter or in summer, by day or by night — it knows of no 


intermission but what our wishes dictate." Coal represented, in short, total 
domination, of both nature and other people, the full realization of Bacon's dream 
at last. "Nature can be conquered," Watt reportedly said, "if we can but find her 
weak side." 12 

Little wonder then that the introduction of Watt's steam engine coincided with 
explosive levels of growth in British manufacturing, such that in the eighty years 
between 1760 and 1840, the country went from importing 2.5 million pounds of 


raw cotton to importing 366 million pounds of raw cotton, a genuine revolution 
made possible by the potent and brutal combination of coal at home and slave labor 
abroad. 11 

This recipe produced more than just new consumer products. In Ecological 
Economics, Herman Daly and Joshua Farley point out that Adam Smith 
published The Wealth of Nations in 1776 — the same year that Watt produced his 
first commercial steam engine. "It is no coincidence," they write, "that the market 
economy and fossil fuel economy emerged at essentially the exact same 
time.... New technologies and vast amounts of fossil energy allowed 
unprecedented production of consumer goods. The need for new markets for these 
mass-produced consumer goods and new sources of raw material played a role in 
colonialism and the pursuit of empire. The market economy evolved as an efficient 
way of allocating such goods, and stimulating the production of even more."" Just 
as colonialism needed coal to fulfill its dream of total domination, the deluge of 
products made possible by both coal and colonialism needed modern capitalism. 

The promise of liberation from nature that Watt was selling in those early days 
continues to be the great power of fossil fuels. That power is what allows today's 
multinationals to scour the globe for the cheapest, most exploitable workforce, 
with natural features and events that once appeared as obstacles — vast oceans, 
treacherous landscapes, seasonal fluctuations — no longer even registering as 
minor annoyances. Or so it seemed for a time. 

It is often said that Mother Nature bats last, and this has been poignantly the case 
for some of the men who were most possessed by the ambition of conquering her. 
A perhaps apocryphal story surrounds the death of Francis Bacon: in an attempt to 
test his hypothesis that frozen meat could be prevented from rotting, he traipsed 
around in chilly weather stuffing a chicken full of snow. As a result, it is said, the 


philosopher caught pneumonia, which eventually led to his demise." Despite some 
controversy, the anecdote survives for its seeming poetic justice: a man who 
thought nature could be bent to his will died from simple exposure to the cold. 

A similar story of comeuppance appears to be unfolding for the human race as 
a whole. Ralph Waldo Emerson called coal "a portable climate" — and it has been 
a smash success, carrying countless advantages, from longer life spans to hundreds 


of millions freed from hard labor. And yet precisely because our bodies are so 
effectively separated from our geographies, we who have access to this privilege 
have proven ourselves far too capable of ignoring the fact that we aren't just 


changing our personal climate but the entire planet' s climate as well, warming not 
just the indoors but the outdoors too. And yet the warming is no less real for our 
failure to pay attention. 

The harnessing of fossil fuel power seemed, for a couple of centuries at least, to 
have freed large parts of humanity from the need to be in constant dialogue with 
nature, having to adjust its plans, ambitions, and schedules to natural fluctuations 
and topographies. Coal and oil, precisely because they were fossilized, seemed 
entirely possessable forms of energy. They did not behave independently — not like 
wind, or water, or, for that matter, workers. Just as Watt's engine promised, once 
purchased, they produced power wherever and whenever their owners wished — 
the ultimate nonreciprocal relationship. 

But what we have learned from atmospheric science is that the give-and-take, 
call-and-response that is the essence of all relationships in nature was not 
eliminated with fossil fuels, it was merely delayed, all the while gaining force and 
velocity. Now the cumulative effect of those centuries of burned carbon is in the 
process of unleashing the most ferocious natural tempers of all. 

As a result, the illusion of total power and control Watt and his cohorts once 
peddled has given way to the reality of near total powerlessness and loss of control 
in the face of such spectacular forces as Hurricane Sandy and Typhoon Haiyan. 
Which is just one of the reasons climate change is so deeply frightening. Because 
to confront this crisis truthfully is to confront ourselves — to reckon, as our 
ancestors did, with our vulnerability to the elements that make up both the planet 
and our bodies. It is to accept (even embrace) being but one porous part of the 
world, rather than its master or machinist, as Bacon long ago promised. There can 
be great well-being in that realization of interconnection, pleasure too. But we 
should not underestimate the depth of the civilizational challenge that this 
relationship represents. As Australian political scientist Clive Hamilton puts it, 
facing these truths about climate change "means recognizing that the power 
relation between humans and the earth is the reverse of the one we have assumed 


for three centuries." 

For one of those centuries, a huge white marble statue of James Watt dominated 
St. Paul's chapel in Westminster Abbey, commemorating a man who "enlarged 
the resources of his Country" and "increased the power of Man." And Watt 
certainly did that: his engine massively accelerated the Industrial Revolution and 
the steamships his engine made possible subsequently opened sub-Saharan Africa 
and India to colonial pillage. So while making Europe richer, he also helped make 
many other parts of the world poorer, carbon-fueled inequalities that persist to this 


day. Indeed, coal was the black ink in which the story of modern capitalism was 

But all the facts were not yet in when Watt was being memorialized in marble 
in 1825. Because it is the cumulative impact of the carbon emissions that began in 
those early mills and mines that has already engraved itself in the geologic 
record — in the levels of the oceans, in their chemical composition, in the slow 
erasure of islands like Nauru; in the retreat of glaciers, the collapse of ice shelves, 
the thawing of permafrost; in the disturbed soil cycles and in the charred forests. 

Indeed, it turns out that coal's earliest casualties — the miners who died from 
black lung, the workers in the Satanic Mills — were not merely the price of 
progress. They were also an early warning that we were unleashing a poisonous 
substance onto the world. "It has become clear over the last century," writes 
Ecuadorian ecologist Esperanza Martinez, "that fossil fuels, the energy sources of 
capitalism, destroy life — from the territories where they are extracted to the oceans 


and the atmosphere that absorb the waste."" - 

Jean-Paul Sartre called fossil fuels "capital bequeathed to mankind by other 
living beings"; they are quite literally the decayed remnants of long-dead life- 
forms. It's not that these substances are evil; it's just that they belong where they 
are: in the ground, where they are performing valuable ecological functions. Coal, 
when left alone, helpfully sequesters not just the carbon long ago pulled out of the 
air by plants, but all kinds of other toxins. It acts, as world-renowned Australian 
climate scientist Tim Flannery puts it, like "a natural sponge that absorbs many 


substances dissolved in groundwater, from uranium to cadmium and mercury." 

When coal is dug up and burned, however, those toxins are released in the 
ecosystem, eventually making their way into the oceans, where they are absorbed 
by krill and plankton, then by fish, and then by us. The released carbon, meanwhile, 
enters the atmosphere, causing global warming (not to mention coal's contribution 
to the smog and particulate pollution that have plagued urban society since the 
Industrial Revolution, afflicting untold numbers of people with respiratory, heart, 
and other diseases). 

Given this legacy, our task is not small, but it is simple: rather than a society of 
grave robbers, we need to become a society of life amplifiers, deriving our energy 
directly from the elements that sustain life. It's time to let the dead rest. 


The Extractivist Left 

The braided historical threads of colonialism, coal, and capitalism shed significant 
light on why so many of us who are willing to challenge the injustices of the market 
system remain paralyzed in the face of the climate threat. Fossil fuels, and the 
deeper extractivist mind-set that they represent, built the modern world. If we are 
part of industrial or postindustrial societies, we are still living inside the story 
written in coal. 

Ever since the French Revolution, there have been pitched ideological battles 
within the confines of this story: communists, socialists, and trade unions have 
fought for more equal distribution of the spoils of extraction, winning major 
victories for the poor and working classes. And the human rights and emancipation 
movements of this period have also fought valiantly against industrial capitalism' s 
treatment of whole categories of our species as human sacrifice zones, no more 
deserving of rights than raw commodities. These struggles have also won major 
victories against the dominance-based paradigm — against slavery, for universal 
suffrage, for equality under the law. And there have been voices in all of these 
movements, moreover, that identified the parallels between the economic model's 
abuse of the natural world and its abuse of human beings deemed worthy of being 
sacrificed, or at least uncounted. Karl Marx, for instance, recognized capitalism's 
"irreparable rift" with "the natural laws of life itself," while feminist scholars have 
long recognized that patriarchy's dual war against women's bodies and against the 
body of the earth were connected to that essential, corrosive separation between 
mind and body — and between body and earth — from which both the Scientific 


Revolution and Industrial Revolution sprang. 

These challenges, however, were mainly in the intellectual realm; Bacon's 
original, biblically inspired framework remained largely intact — the right of 
humans to place ourselves above the ecosystems that support us and to abuse the 
earth as if it were an inanimate machine. The strongest challenges to this 
worldview have always come from outside its logic, in those historical junctures 
when the extractive project clashes directly with a different, older way of relating 
to the earth — and that older way fights back. This has been true from the earliest 
days of industrialization, when English and Irish peasants, for instance, revolted 
against the first attempts to enclose communal lands, and it has continued in 
clashes between colonizers and Indigenous peoples through the centuries, right up 
to — as we will see — the Indigenous-led resistance to extreme fossil fuel extraction 
gaining power today. 


But for those of us born and raised inside this system, though we may well see 
the dead-end flaw of its central logic, it can remain intensely difficult to see a way 
out. And how could it be otherwise? Post-Enlightenment Western culture does not 
offer a road map for how to live that is not based on an extractivist, nonreciprocal 
relationship with nature. 

This is where the right-wing climate deniers have overstated their conspiracy 
theories about what a cosmic gift global warming is to the left. It is true, as I have 
outlined, that many climate responses reinforce progressive support for 
government intervention in the market, for greater equality, and for a more robust 
public sphere. But the deeper message carried by the ecological crisis — that 
humanity has to go a whole lot easier on the living systems that sustain us, acting 
regeneratively rather than extractively — is a profound challenge to large parts of 
the left as well as the right. It's a challenge to some trade unions, those trying to 
freeze in place the dirtiest jobs, instead of fighting for the good clean jobs their 
members deserve. And it's a challenge to the overwhelming majority of center-left 
Keynesians, who still define economic success in terms of traditional measures of 
GDP growth, regardless of whether that growth comes from rampant resource 
extraction. (This is all the more baffling because Keynes himself, like John Stuart 
Mill, advocated a transition to a post-growth economy.) 

It's a challenge, too, to those parts of the left that equated socialism with the 
authoritarian rule of the Soviet Union and its satellites (though there was always a 
rich tradition, particularly among anarchists, that considered Stalin's project an 
abomination of core social justice principles). Because the fact is that those self- 
described socialist states devoured resources with as much enthusiasm as their 
capitalist counterparts, and spewed waste just as recklessly. Before the fall of the 
Berlin Wall, for instance, Czechs and Russians had even higher carbon footprints 
per capita than Canadians and Australians. Which is why one of the only times the 
developed world has seen a precipitous emissions drop was after the economic 
collapse of the former Soviet Union in the early 1990s. Mao Zedong, for his part, 
openly declared that "man must conquer nature," setting loose a devastating 
onslaught on the natural world that transitioned seamlessly from clear-cuts under 
communism to mega-dams under capitalism. Russia's oil and gas companies, 
meanwhile, were as reckless and accident-prone under state socialist control as 


they are today in the hands of the oligarchs and Russia's corporatist stated 

And why wouldn't they be? Authoritarian socialism and capitalism share strong 
tendencies toward centralizing (one in the hands of the state, the other in the hands 
of corporations). They also both keep their respective systems going through 


ruthless expansion — whether through production for production's sake, in the case 
of Soviet-era socialism, or consumption for consumption's sake, in the case of 
consumer capitalism. 

One possible bright spot is Scandinavian- style Social Democracy, which has 
undoubtedly produced some of the most significant green breakthroughs in the 
world, from the visionary urban design of Stockholm, where roughly 74 percent 
of residents walk, bike, or take public transit to work, to Denmark's community- 
controlled wind power revolution. And yet Norway's late-life emergence as a 
major oil producer — with majority state- owned Statoil tearing up the Alberta tar 
sands and gearing up to tap massive reserves in the Arctic — calls into question 


whether these countries are indeed charting a path away from extractivism. 

In Latin America and Africa, moving away from overdependence on raw 
resource extraction and export, and toward more diversified economies, has always 
been a central piece of the postcolonial project. And yet some countries where left 
and center-left governments have come to power over the last decade are moving 
in the opposite direction. The fact that this tendency is little discussed outside the 
continent should not be surprising. Progressives around the world have rightfully 
cheered Latin America's electoral "pink tide," with government after government 
coming to power promising to reduce inequality, tackle extreme poverty, and take 
back control over the extractive industries of their respective countries. And purely 
from the perspective of poverty reduction, the results have often been stunning. 

Since the election of Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, and now under the leadership of 
his former chief of staff, Dilma Rousseff, Brazil has reduced its extreme poverty 
rate by 65 percent in a single decade, according to the government. More than 
thirty million people have been lifted out of poverty. After the election of Hugo 
Chavez, Venezuela slashed the percentage of the population living in extreme 
poverty by more than half — from 16.6 percent in 1999 to 7 percent in 2011, 
according to government statistics. College enrollment has doubled since 2004. 
Ecuador under Rafael Correa has dropped its poverty rates by 32 per cent, 
according to the World Bank. In Argentina, urban poverty plummeted from 54.7 
percent in 2003 to 6.5 percent in 201 1, according to government data collected by 
the U.N.- 

Bolivia's record, under the presidency of Evo Morales, is also impressive. It has 
reduced the proportion of its population living in extreme poverty from 38 percent 


in 2005 to 21.6 percent in 2012, according to government figures. And 
unemployment rates have been cut in half. Most importantly, while other 
developing countries have used growth to create societies of big winners and big 


losers, Bolivia is actually succeeding in building a more equal society. Alicia 
Barcena Ibarra, executive secretary of the U.N. Economic Commission for Latin 
America and the Caribbean, observes that in Bolivia "the gap between rich and 


poor has been hugely narrowed." 

All of this is a marked improvement over what came before, when the wealth 
extracted from each of these countries was overwhelmingly concentrated among a 
tiny elite, with far too much of it fleeing the continent entirely. And yet these left 
and center-left governments have so far been unable to come up with economic 
models that do not require extremely high levels of extraction of finite resources, 
often at tremendous ecological and human cost. This is true for Ecuador, with its 
growing oil dependence, including oil from the Amazon; Bolivia, with its huge 
dependence on natural gas; Argentina, with its continued support for open-pit 
mining and its "green deserts" of genetically modified soy and other crops; Brazil, 
with its highly contentious mega-dams and forays into high-risk offshore oil 
drilling; and of course it has always been the case for petro-dependent Venezuela. 
Moreover, most of these governments have made very little progress on the old 
dream of diversifying their economies away from raw resource exports — in fact, 
between 2004 and 201 1, raw resources as a percentage of overall exports increased 
in all of these countries except Argentina, though some of this increase was no 
doubt due to rising commodity prices. It hasn't helped that China has been 
throwing easy credit around the continent, in some cases demanding to be paid 


back in oil. 

This reliance on high risk and ecologically damaging forms of extraction is 
particularly disappointing in the governments of Evo Morales in Bolivia and 
Rafael Correa in Ecuador. In their first terms, both had signaled that a new, 
nonextractive chapter was beginning in their countries. Part of this involved 
granting real respect to the Indigenous cultures that had survived centuries of 
marginalization and oppression and that form powerful political constituencies in 
both countries. Under Morales and Correa, the Indigenous concepts of sumak 
kawsaysind buen vivir, which strive to build societies in harmony with nature (in 
which everyone has enough, rather than more and more), became the discourse of 
government, even recognized in law. But in both cases, escalating industrial- scale 
development and extraction has overtaken this promising rhetoric. According to 
Ecuador's Esperanza Martinez, "Since 2007, Correa' s has been the most 
extractivist government in the history of the country, in terms of oil and now also 
mining." Indeed Latin American intellectuals have invented a new term to describe 


what they are experiencing: "progressive extractivism." 


The governments claim they have no choice — that they need to pursue extractive 
policies in order to pay for programs that alleviate poverty. And in many ways this 
explanation comes back to the question of climate debt: Bolivia and Ecuador have 
been at the forefront of the coalition of governments asking that the countries 
responsible for the bulk of historical greenhouse gas emissions help to pay for the 
Global South' s transition away from dirty energy and toward low-carbon 
development. These calls have been alternatively ignored and dismissed. Forced 
to choose between poverty and pollution, these governments are choosing 
pollution, but those should not be their only options. 

The default overreliance on dirty extraction is not only a problem for 
progressives in the developing world. In Greece in May 2013, for instance, I was 
surprised to discover that the left-wing Syriza party — then the country's official 
opposition and held up by many progressive Europeans as the great hope for a real 
political alternative on the continent — did not oppose the governing coalition's 
embrace of new oil and gas exploration. Instead, it argued that any funds raised by 
the effort should be spent on pensions, not used to pay back creditors. In other 
words: they were not providing an alternative to extractivism but simply had better 
plans for distributing the spoils. 

Far from seeing climate change as an opportunity to argue for their socialist 
Utopia, as conservative climate change deniers fear, Syriza had simply stopped 
talking about global warming altogether. 

This is something that the party's leader, Alexis Tsipras, admitted to me quite 
openly in an interview: "We were a party that had the environment and climate 
change in the center of our interest," he said. "But after these years of depression 


in Greece, we forgot climate change." At least he was honest. 

The good news, and it is significant, is that large and growing social movements 
in all of these countries are pushing back against the idea that extraction- and- 
redistribution is the only route out of poverty and economic crisis. There are 
massive movements against gold mining in Greece, so large that Syriza has 
become a significant opponent of the mines. In Latin America, meanwhile, 
progressive governments are increasingly finding themselves in direct conflict 
with many of the people who elected them, facing accusations that their new model 
of what Hugo Chavez called "Twenty-first-Century Socialism" simply isn't new 
enough. Huge hydro dams in Brazil, highways through sensitive areas in Bolivia, 
and oil drilling in the Ecuadorian Amazon have all become internal flashpoints. 
Yes, the wealth is better distributed, particularly among the urban poor, but outside 
the cities, the ways of life of Indigenous peoples and peasants are still being 


endangered without their consent, and they are still being made landless by 
ecosystem destruction. What is needed, writes Bolivian environmentalist Patricia 
Molina, is a new definition of development, "so that the goal is the elimination of 


poverty, and not of the poor." 

This critique represents more than just the push and pull of politics; it is a 
fundamental shift in the way an increasingly large and vocal political constituency 
views the goal of economic activity and the meaning of development. Space is 
opening up for a growing influence of Indigenous thought on new generations of 
activists, beginning, most significantly, with Mexico's Zapatista uprising in 1994, 
and continuing, as we will see, with the important leadership role that Indigenous 
land-rights movements are playing in pivotal anti-extraction struggles in North 
America, Latin America, Australia, and New Zealand. In part through these 
struggles, non-Indigenous progressive movements are being exposed to 
worldviews based on relationships of reciprocity and interconnection with the 
natural world that are the antithesis of extractivism. These movements have truly 
heard the message of climate change and are winning battles to keep significant 
amounts of carbon in the ground. 

Some Warnings, Unheeded 

There is one other group that might have provided a challenge to Western culture's 
disastrous view of nature as a bottomless vending machine. That group, of course, 
is the environmental movement, the network of organizations that exists to protect 
the natural world from being devoured by human activity. And yet the movement 
has not played this role, at least not in a sustained and coherent manner. 

In part, that has to do with the movement's unusually elite history, particularly 
in North America. When conservationism emerged as a powerful force in the late 
nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, it was primarily about men of privilege 
who enjoyed fishing, hunting, camping, and hiking and who recognized that many 
of their favorite wilderness spots were under threat from the rapid expansion of 
industrialization. For the most part, these men did not call into question the frenetic 
economic project that was devouring natural landscapes all over the continent — 
they simply wanted to make sure that some particularly spectacular pockets were 
set aside for their recreation and aesthetic appreciation. Like the Christian 
missionaries who traveled with traders and soldiers, most early preservationists 
saw their work as a civilizing addendum to the colonial and industrial projects — 


not as a challenge to them. Writing in 1914, Bronx Zoo director William Temple 
Hornaday summed up this ethos, urging American educators to "take up their share 


of the white man's burden" and help to "preserve the wild life of our country." 

This task was accomplished not with disruptive protests, which would have been 
unseemly for a movement so entrenched in the upper stratum of society. Instead, 
it was achieved through quiet lobbying, with well-bred men appealing to the 
noblesse oblige of other men of their class to save a cherished area by turning it 
into a national or state park, or a private family preserve — often at the direct 
expense of Indigenous people who lost access to these lands as hunting and fishing 
grounds. There were those in the movement, however, who saw in the threats to 
their country's most beautiful places signs of a deeper cultural crisis. For instance, 
John Muir, the great naturalist writer who helped found the Sierra Club in 1892, 
excoriated the industrialists who dammed wild rivers and drowned beautiful 
valleys. To him they were heathens — "devotees of ravaging commercialism" who 
"instead of lifting their eyes to the God of the mountains, lift them to the Almighty 



He was not the only heretic. A strain of radicalism drove some of the early 
Western ecological thinkers to argue for doing more than protecting isolated 
landscapes. Though frequently unacknowledged, these thinkers often drew heavily 
on Eastern beliefs about the interconnectedness of all life, as well as on Native 
American cosmologies that see all living creatures as our "relations." 

In the mid- 1800s, Henry David Thoreau wrote that, "The earth I tread on is not 
a dead, inert mass. It is a body, has a spirit, is organic, and fluid to the influence of 
its spirit, and to whatever particle of that spirit is in me." This was a straight 
repudiation of Francis Bacon's casting of the earth as an inert machine whose 
mysteries could be mastered by the human mind. And almost a century after 
Thoreau, Aldo Leopold, whose book A Sand County Almanac was the touchstone 
for a second wave of environmentalists, similarly called for an ethic that "enlarges 
the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals" and 
that recognizes "the individual is a member of a community of interdependent 
parts." A "land ethic," as he called it, "changes the role of Homo sapiens from 
conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it. It implies 
respect for his fellow-members, and also respect for the community as such." 

These ideas were hugely influential in the evolution of ecological thought, but 
unattached to populist movements, they posed little threat to galloping 
industrialization. The dominant worldview continued to see humans as a 
conquering army, subduing and mechanizing the natural world. Even so, by the 


1930s, with socialism on the rise around the world, the more conservative elements 
of the growing environmental movement sought to distance themselves from 
Leopold's "radical" suggestion that nature had an inherent value beyond its utility 
to man. If watersheds and old-growth forests had a "right to continued existence," 
as Leopold argued (a preview of the "rights of nature" debates that would emerge 
several decades later), then an owner's right to do what he wished with his land 
could be called into question. In 1935, Jay Norwood "Ding" Darling, who would 
later help found the National Wildlife Federation, wrote to Leopold warning him, 
"I can't get away from the idea that you are getting us out into water over our depth 
by your new philosophy of wildlife environment. The end of that road leads to 
socialization of property." 

By the time Rachel Carson published Silent Spring in 1962, the attempts to turn 
nature into a mere cog in the American industrial machine had grown so 
aggressive, so overtly militaristic, that it was no longer possible to pretend that 
combining capitalism with conservation was simply a matter of protecting a few 
pockets of green. Carson's book boiled over with righteous condemnations of a 
chemical industry that used aerial bombardment to wipe out insects, thoughtlessly 
endangering human and animal life in the process. The marine biologist-turned- 
social-critic painted a vivid picture of the arrogant "control men" who, enthralled 


with "a bright new toy," hurled poisons "against the fabric of life."^ 

Carson's focus was DDT, but for her the problem was not a particular chemical; 
it was a logic. "The 'control of nature,' " Carson wrote, "is a phrase conceived in 
arrogance, born of the Neanderthal age of biology and philosophy, when it was 
supposed that nature exists for the convenience of man.... It is our alarming 
misfortune that so primitive a science has armed itself with the most modern and 
terrible weapons, and that in turning them against the insects it has also turned 


them against the earth."^ 

Carson's writing inspired a new, much more radical generation of 
environmentalists to see themselves as part of a fragile planetary ecosystem rather 
than as its engineers or mechanics, giving birth to the field of Ecological 
Economics. It was in this context that the underlying logic of extractivism — that 
there would always be more earth for us to consume — began to be forcefully 
challenged within the mainstream. The pinnacle of this debate came in 1972 when 
the Club of Rome published The Limits to Growth, a runaway best- seller that used 
early computer models to predict that if natural systems continued to be depleted 
at their current rate, humanity would overshoot the planet's carrying capacity by 
the middle of the twenty-first century. Saving a few beautiful mountain ranges 


wouldn't be enough to get us out of this fix; the logic of growth itself needed to be 
confronted. As author Christian Parenti observed recently of the book's lasting 
influence, "Limits combined the glamour of Big Science — powerful MIT 
computers and support from the Smithsonian Institution — with a focus on the 
interconnectedness of things, which fit perfectly with the new countercultural 
Zeitgeist." And though some of the book's projections have not held up over 
time — the authors underestimated, for instance, the capacity of profit incentives 
and innovative technologies to unlock new reserves of finite resources — Limits was 
right about the most important limit of all. On "the limits of natural 'sinks,' or the 
Earth's ability to absorb pollution," Parenti writes, "the catastrophically bleak 
vision of Limits is playing out as totally correct. We may find new inputs — more 
oil or chromium — or invent substitutes, but we have not produced or discovered 
more natural sinks. The Earth's capacity to absorb the filthy byproducts of global 
capitalism's voracious metabolism is maxing out. That warning has always been 


the most powerful part of The Limits to Growth." 

And yet in the most powerful parts of the environmental movement, in the key 
decades during which we have been confronting the climate threat, these voices of 
warning have gone unheeded. The movement did not reckon with limits of growth 
in an economic system built on maximizing profits, it instead tried to prove that 
saving the planet could be a great new business opportunity. 

The reasons for this political timidity have plenty to do with the themes already 
discussed: the power and allure of free market logic that usurped so much 
intellectual life in the late 1980s and 1990s, including large parts of the 
conservation movement. But this persistent unwillingness to follow science to its 
conclusions also speaks to the power of the cultural narrative that tells us that 
humans are ultimately in control of the earth, and not the other way around. This 
is the same narrative that assures us that, however bad things get, we are going to 
be saved at the last minute — whether by the market, by philanthropic billionaires, 
or by technological wizards — or bestof all, by all three at the same time. And while 
we wait, we keep digging in deeper. 

Only when we dispense with these various forms of magical thinking will we be 
ready to leave extractivism behind and build the societies we need within the 
boundaries we have — a world with no sacrifice zones, no new Naurus. 

~ "In the morning I bathe my intellect in the stupendous and cosmogonal philosophy of the Bhagvat Geeta," 
wrote Thoreau in Walden of the famous Indian scripture. He continued, "I lay down the book and go to my 
well for water and lo! there I meet the servant of the Brahmin, priest of Brahma and Vishnu and Indra, who 
still sits in his temple on the Ganges reading the Vedas, or dwells at the root of a tree with his crust and 
water jug.... The pure Walden water is mingled with the sacred water of the Ganges." 



"Vast economic incentives exist to invent pills that would cure 
alcoholism or drug addiction, and much snake oil gets peddled 
claiming to provide such benefits. Yet substance abuse has not 
disappeared from society. Given the addiction of modern 
civilization to cheap energy, the parallel ought to be unnerving to 
anyone who believes that technology alone will allow us to pull the 
climate rabbit out of the fossil-fuel hat.... The hopes that many 
Greens place in a technological fix are an expression of high- 
modernist faith in the unlimited power of science and technology as 
profound — and as rational — as Augustine's faith in Christ." 

-Political scientist William Barnes and intellectual historian Nils 

Gilman, 201 1 1 

"The leaders of the largest environmental groups in the country 
have become all too comfortable jet-setting with their handpicked 
corporate board members, a lifestyle they owe to those same 
corporate moguls. So it is little wonder that instead of prodding 
their benefactors to do better, these leaders — always hungry for the 
next donation — heap praise on every corporate half measure and at 
every photo opportunity." 

-Christine MacDonald, former employee of Conservation International, 

2008 2 




The Disastrous Merger of Big Business and Big Green 

"Our arguments must translate into profits, earnings, productivity, and 
economic incentives for industry." 

-Former National Wildlife Federation President Jay Hair, 1987 1 

"I know this seems antithetical, but the bottom line here is not whether 
new coal-fired plants are built.... If the new coal plants are coming online 
under a cap that is bringing total emissions down, then it is not the worst 
thing in the world. Coal isn't the enemy. Carbon emissions are." 


-Environmental Defense Fund President Fred Krupp, 2009 

Before the twentieth century, as many as a million Attwater's prairie chickens 
made their homes in the tall grasses along the coasts of Texas and 


Louisiana." During mating season, they were quite a spectacle. To attract females, 
the males stomped their feet in little staccato motions, made loud, spooky cooing 
noises (known as "booming"), and inflated bright yellow air sacs on the sides of 
their necks, giving them the appearance of having swallowed two golden eggs. 

But as the native prairie was turned into subdivisions and sliced up by oil and 
gas development, the Attwater's prairie chicken population began to crash. Local 
birders mourned the loss and in 1965, The Nature Conservancy — renowned for 
buying up ecologically important tracts of land and turning them into preserves — 
opened a Texas chapter. Early on, one of its major priorities was saving the 


Attwater's prairie chicken from extinction. 

It wasn't going to be easy, even for what would become the richest 
environmental organization in the world. One of the last remaining breeding 
grounds was located on 2,303 acres in southeast Texas on the shore of Galveston 


Bay, a property that happened to be owned by Mobil (now ExxonMobil). The fossil 
fuel giant hadn't yet covered the land in oil and gas infrastructure, but there were 
active wells on its southern edge, closing in on the breeding grounds of the 
endangered bird. Then in 1995, came some surprisingly good news. Mobil was 
donating its Galveston Bay property to The Nature Conservancy — "the last best 
hope of saving one of the world's most endangered species," as the company put 
it. The conservancy, which named the land the Texas City Prairie Preserve, would 
make "the recovery of the Attwater's prairie chicken" its "highest priority." To all 
appearances, it was a shining conservation success story — proof that a non- 
confrontational, partnership-based approach to environmentalism could yield 
tangible results. But four years later, something very strange happened. The 
Nature Conservancy began to do the very thing that its supporters thought it was 
there to prevent: it began extracting fossil fuels on the preserve. In 1999, the 
conservancy commissioned an oil and gas operator to sink a new gas well inside 
the preserve, which would send millions in revenue flowing directly into the 
environmental organization's coffers. And while the older oil and gas wells — those 
drilled before the land was designated a bird preserve — were mostly clustered far 
from the habitat of the Attwater's prairie chickens, that was decidedly not the case 
for the new well. According to Aaron Tjelmeland, the current manager of the 
preserve, the spot where the conservancy allowed drilling was relatively near the 
areas where the endangered birds nested, as well as performed their distinctive 
mating rituals. Of all the wells, this drilling pad was "the closest to where the 
prairie chickens normally hung out, or normally boomed," he said in an interview. ~ 
For about three years, The Nature Conservancy's foray into the fossil fuel 
business attracted relatively little public controversy. That changed in 2002, when 
a piece in the Los Angeles Times exposed the drilling. For traditional 
conservationists, it was a little like finding out that Amnesty International had 
opened its own prison wing at Guantanamo. "They're exploiting the Attwater's 
prairie chicken to make money," fumed Clait E. Braun, then president of the 
Wildlife Society, and a leading expert on prairie chickens. Then, in May 2003, The 
Washington Post followed up with a scathing investigation into the organization's 
questionable land deals, delving deeper into the surprising fact that on the Texas 
City Prairie Preserve, one of the most respected environmental organizations in the 


United States was now moonlighting as a gas driller. 

The Nature Conservancy, sounding like pretty much everyone in the oil and gas 
business, insisted that, "We can do this drilling without harming the prairie 
chickens and their habitat." But the track record on the preserve makes that far 


from clear. In addition to the increased traffic, light, and noise that are part of any 
drilling operation, there were several points when drilling and wildlife preservation 
seemed to come into direct conflict. For instance, because Attwater's prairie 
chickens are so endangered, there is a public-private program that breeds them in 
captivity and then releases them into the wild, an initiative in which The Nature 
Conservancy was participating on the Texas City Prairie Preserve. But at one point 
early on in its drilling foray, a delay in the construction of a gas pipeline led the 
conservancy to postpone the release of the captive-bred chicks by three months — 
a dicey call because migrating raptors and other predators appear to have been 
waiting for them. 2 

The bird release that year was a disaster. According to an internal Nature 
Conservancy report, all seventeen of the chicks "died shortly after their delayed 
release." The science director of the Texas chapter wrote that the months of waiting 
had subjected the birds "to higher probability of death from raptor predation." 
According to The Washington Post report, by 2003 there were just sixteen 
Attwater's prairie chickens that The Nature Conservancy knew about on the 
preserve, down from thirty-six before the drilling began. Though top conservancy 
officials insisted that the birds had not been adversely affected by its industrial 
activities, it was a dismal record. When I first came across the decade-old story, 
I assumed that The Nature Conservancy's extraction activities had stopped when 
they were exposed, since the revelation had ignited a firestorm of controversy and 
forced the organization to pledge not to repeat this particular fundraising 
technique. After the story broke, the organization's then president stated clearly, 
"We won't initiate any new oil, gas drilling, or mining of hard rock minerals on 
preserves that we own. We've only done that twice in 52 years but we thought, 
nonetheless, we should, for appearances' sake, not do that again." 11 

Turns out I was wrong. In fact, as of this book's writing, the conservancy 
was still extracting hydrocarbons on the Texas preserve that it rescued from Mobil 
back in 1995. In a series of communications, conservancy spokes-people insisted 
that the organization was required to continue fossil fuel extracting under the terms 
of the original drilling lease. And it's true that the 2003 pledge had been carefully 
worded, promising not to initiate "any new" drilling activities, and containing a 


proviso that it would honor "existing contracts." 

But The Nature Conservancy has not simply continued extracting for gas in that 
same well. A 2010 paper presented at a Society of Petroleum Engineers 
conference, and coauthored by two conservancy officials, reveals that the original 
well "died in March 2003, and was unable to flow due to excessive water 


production," leading to the drilling of a replacement well in the same area in late 
2007. It also turns out that while the original well was for gas, the new one is now 
producing only oil.~ 

Given that close to five years elapsed between the death of the Nature 
Conservancy' s first well and the drilling of the replacement, it seems possible that 
the organization had the legal grounds to extricate itself from the original lease if 
it had been sufficiently motivated to do so. The lease I have seen states clearly that 
in the event that oil or gas production ever stops in a given "well tract," the operator 
has a 180-day window to begin "reworking" the well or to start drilling a new one. 
If it fails to do so, the lease for that area is automatically terminated. If The Nature 
Conservancy causes a delay in the operator's work — which the organization claims 
has regularly occurred, since it restricts drilling to a few months per year — then 
the 180-day window is extended by the equivalent amount of time. So, the 
organization insists that though it was "concerned" about initial plans for the new 
2007 well, due to the proposed well's proximity to the Attwater's habitat, it 
believed it was "bound by the existing lease and required to permit the drilling of 
the replacement well," albeit in a different location. James Petterson, director of 
marketing strategies at the conservancy, told me that the organization had sought 
"an outside legal opinion from an oil and gas expert" that confirmed this view. Yet 
in an internal explanatory document on drilling entitled "Attwater's Prairie 
Chicken Background," the organization emphasizes that it maintains the power to 
control what can and cannot occur on the preserve. "Given the birds' endangered 
status," the document states, "no activity can take place that is deemed likely to 
harm the species." Petterson insists that "bird experts were consulted" and "nobody 
[here] would want to do anything to harm an endangered species, particularly one 
as endangered as the Attwater's Prairie Chicken ... nobody is going to choose oil 


and gas development over the last remaining handful of birds on the planet." 

Regardless of whether the conservancy resumed drilling for oil in Texas because 
it had no choice or because it wanted to get the petro dollars flowing again after 
the initial controversy had died down, the issue has taken on new urgency of late. 
That's because, in November 2012, and with little fanfare, the last of the Attwater's 
prairie chickens disappeared from the Preserve. Aaron Tjelmeland, the preserve 
manager, said of the birds that there are "none that we know about." It is worth 
underlining this detail: under the stewardship of what The New For&erdescribes as 
"the biggest environmental nongovernmental organization in the world" — 
boasting over one million members and assets of roughly $6 billion and operating 
in thirty-five countries — an endangered species has been completely wiped out 


from one of its last remaining breeding grounds, on which the organization earned 
millions drilling for and pumping oil and gas. Amazingly, the website for the Texas 
City Prairie Preserve continues to boast that the "land management techniques the 
conservancy utilizes at the preserve are best practices that we export to other 
preserves." And though it mentions in passing that there are no more Attwater's 
prairie chickens on the land, it says nothing about its side business in oil and gas. 15 

The disappearance of the prairie chickens is no doubt the result of a combination 
of factors — invasive species, low numbers of captive-bred birds, drought (possibly 
linked to climate change), and the relatively small size of the reserve (the 
conservancy's preferred explanation). It's possible that the oil and gas drilling 
played no role at all. So let's set the birds aside for a moment. Even if a few had 
survived, and even if a few return in the future, the fact remains that The Nature 
Conservancy has been in the oil and gas business for a decade and half. That this 
could happen in the age of climate change points to a painful reality behind the 
environmental movement' s catastrophic failure to effectively battle the economic 
interests behind our soaring emissions: large parts of the movement aren't actually 
fighting those interests — they have merged with them. 

The Nature Conservancy, I should stress, is the only green group (that I know 
of, at least) to actually sink its own oil and gas wells. But it is far from the only 
group to have strong ties with the fossil fuel sector and other major polluters. For 
instance, Conservation International, The Nature Conservancy, and the 
Conservation Fund have all received money from Shell and BP, while American 
Electric Power, a traditional dirty-coal utility, has donated to the Conservation 
Fund and The Nature Conservancy. WWF (originally the World Wildlife Fund) 
has had a long relationship with Shell, and the World Resources Institute has what 
it describes as "a long-term, close strategic relationship with the Shell 
Foundation." Conservation International has partnerships with Walmart, 
Monsanto, Australian-based mining and petroleum giant BHP Billiton (a major 
extractor of coal), as well as Shell, Chevron, ExxonMobil, Toyota, McDonald's, 
and BP (according to The Washington Post BP has channeled $2 million to 

* 16 

Conservation International over the years). And that is the barest of samplings. 

The relationships are also more structural than mere donations and partnerships. 
The Nature Conservancy counts BP America, Chevron, and Shell among the 
members of its Business Council and Jim Rogers, chairman of the board and 
former CEO of Duke Energy, one of the largest U.S. coal-burning utilities, sits on 
the organization's board of directors (past board members include former CEOs of 


General Motors and American Electric Power). 


There is yet another way in which some green groups have entangled their fates 
with the corporations at the heart of the climate crisis: by investing their own 
money with them. For instance, while investigating The Nature Conservancy's 
foray into oil and gas drilling, I was struck by a line item in its 2012 financial 
statements: $22.8 million of the organization's endowment — one of the largest in 
the U.S. — was invested in "energy" companies (that figure has since gone up to 
$26.5 million). Energy, of course, means oil, gas, coal, and the like. Curious, I 
soon discovered that most big conservation groups did not have policies 
prohibiting them from investing their endowments in fossil fuel companies. The 
hypocrisy is staggering: these organizations raise mountains of cash every year on 
the promise that the funds will be spent on work that is preserving wildlife and 
attempting to prevent catastrophic global warming. And yet some have turned 
around and invested that money with companies that have made it abundantly 
clear, through their reserves, that they intend to extract several times more carbon 
than the atmosphere can absorb with any degree of safety. It must be stated that 
these choices, made unilaterally by the top tier of leadership at the big green 
groups, do not represent the wishes or values of the millions of members who 
support them through donations or join genuinely community supported 
campaigns to clean up polluted rivers, protect beloved pieces of wilderness, or 
support renewables legislation. Indeed, many have been deeply alarmed to 
discover that groups they believed to be confronting polluters were in fact in 
business with them.~ 

There are, moreover, large parts of the green movement that have never engaged 
in these types of arrangements — they don't have endowments to invest or they 
have clear policies prohibiting fossil fuel holdings, and some have equally clear 
policies against taking donations from polluters. These groups, not coincidentally, 
tend also to be the ones with track records of going head-to-head with big oil and 
coal: Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace have been battling Shell's and 
Chevron's alleged complicity with horrific human rights abuses in the Niger Delta 
since the early 1990s (though Shell has agreed to pay out $15.5 million to settle a 
case involving these claims, it continues to deny wrongdoing, as does Chevron); 
Rainforest Action Network has been at the forefront of the international campaign 
against Chevron for the disaster left behind in the Ecuadorian Amazon; Food & 
Water Watch has helped secure big victories against fracking; helped 
launch the fossil fuel divestment movement and has been at the forefront of the 
national mobilization against the Keystone XL pipeline. The Sierra Club is a more 
complex case: it has also been a part of these campaigns and is the bane of the U.S. 


coal industry — but between 2007 and 2010, the group secretly took millions from 
a natural gas company. But under new leadership — and facing pressure from the 


grass roots — it has cut ties with the fossil fuel sector. 

Even so, almost no one's hands are clean. That's because many of the top 
foundations that underwrite much of the environmental movement — including 
groups and projects with which I have been involved — come from fortunes, like 
the Rockefeller family's, that are linked with fossil fuels. And though these 
foundations do fund campaigns that confront big polluters most do not prohibit 
their own endowments from being invested with coal and oil. So, for example, the 
Ford Foundation, which has supported the Environmental Defense Fund and 
Natural Resources Defense Council (and helped support a film that is 
accompanying this book), reported in 2013 that it had nearly $14 million in Shell 
and BP stocks alone (another multimillion-dollar stock holding is Norway's 


Statoil). In North America and Europe, it's virtually impossible to do public 
interest work of any scale — in academia or journalism or activism — without taking 
money of questionable origin, whether the origin is the state, corporations, or 
private philanthropy. And though more accountable grassroots movement 
financing models are desperately needed (and crowdfunding is a promising start), 
the fact of these financial ties is not what is particularly noteworthy, nor proof of 
some nefarious corruption. Where following the financial ties between funders and 
public interest work becomes relevant is when there is a compelling reason to 
believe that funding is having undue influence — shaping the kinds of research 
undertaken, the kinds of policies advanced, as well as the kinds of questions that 
get asked in the first place. And since it is generally accepted that fossil fuel money 
and conservative foundations have shaped the climate change denial movement, it 
seems fair to ask whether fossil fuel money and the values of centrist foundations 
have shaped parts of the movement that are in the business of proposing solutions. 
And there is a good deal of evidence that these ties have indeed had a decisive 

The big, corporate-affiliated green groups don't deny the reality of climate 
change, of course — many work hard to raise the alarm. And yet several of these 
groups have consistently, and aggressively, pushed responses to climate change 
that are the least burdensome, and often directly beneficial, to the largest 
greenhouse gas emitters on the planet — even when the policies come at the direct 
expense of communities fighting to keep fossil fuels in the ground. Rather than 
advancing policies that treat greenhouse gases as dangerous pollutants demanding 
clear, enforceable regulations that would restrict emissions and create the 


conditions for a full transition to renewables, these groups have pushed convoluted 
market-based schemes that have treated greenhouse gases as late-capitalist 
abstractions to be traded, bundled, speculated upon, and moved around the globe 
like currency or subprime debt. And many of these same groups have championed 
one of the main fossil fuels — natural gas — as a supposed solution to climate 
change, despite mounting evidence that in the coming decades, the methane it 
releases, particularly through the fracking process, has the potential to help lock us 
into catastrophic levels of warming (as explained in chapter four). In some cases, 
large foundations have collaborated to explicitly direct the U.S. green movement 
toward these policies. Most infamously within the movement, a 2007 road map 
titled "Design to Win: Philanthropy's Role in the Fight Against Global 
Warming" — which was sponsored by six large foundations — advocated carbon 
trading as a response to climate change and supported both natural gas and 
expanded nuclear power. And as these policies were being turned into political 
campaigns, the message sent to green groups was essentially "step in line, or else 
you're not going to get your share of the money," recalls Jigar Shah, a renowned 
solar entrepreneur, former Greenpeace USA board member, and one-time director 


of the industry-focused Carbon War Room. 

The "market-based" climate solutions favored by so many large foundations and 
adopted by many greens have provided an invaluable service to the fossil fuel 
sector as a whole. For one, they succeeded in taking what began as a 
straightforward debate about shifting away from fossil fuels and put it through a 
jargon generator so convoluted that the entire climate issue came to seem too 
complex and arcane for nonexperts to understand, seriously undercutting the 
potential to build a mass movement capable of taking on powerful polluters. As 
Drexel University sociologist Robert Brulle has observed, "The movement to 
technical and market-based analyses as the core of reform environmentalism 
gutted whatever progressive vision"the movement had previously held. "Rather 
than engaging the broader public, reform environmentalism focuses debate among 
experts in the scientific, legal, and economic communities. It may provide 
technical solutions to specific problems but it neglects the larger social dynamics 


that underlie environmental degradation." 

These policies have also fed the false perception that a full transition to 
renewable energy is technically impossible — since if it were possible, why would 
all these well-meaning green groups be spending so much of their time pushing 
trading schemes and singing the praises of natural gas, even when extracted 
through the ecologically destructive method of fracking? 


Often these compromises are rationalized according to the theory of "low- 
hanging fruit." This strategy holds, in essence, that it's hard and expensive to try 
to convince politicians to regulate and discipline the most powerful corporations 
in the world. So rather than pick that very tough fight, it's wiser and more effective 
to begin with something easier. Asking consumers to buy a more expensive, less 
toxic laundry detergent, for instance. Making cars more fuel-efficient. Switching 
to a supposedly cleaner fossil fuel. Paying an Indigenous tribe to stop logging a 
forest in Papua New Guinea to offset the emissions of a coal plant that gets to stay 
open in Ohio. With emissions up by about 57 percent since the U.N. climate 
convention was signed in 1992, the failure of this polite strategy is beyond debate. 
And yet still, at the upper echelons of the climate movement, our soaring emissions 
are never blamed on anything as concrete as the fossil fuel corporations that work 
furiously to block all serious attempts to regulate emissions, and certainly not on 
the economic model that demands that these companies put profit before the health 
of the natural systems upon which all life depends. Rather the villains are always 
vague and unthreatening — a lack of "political will," a deficit of "ambition" — while 
fossil fuel executives are welcomed at U.N. climate summits as key "partners" in 


the quest for "climate solutions." 

This upside-down world reached new levels of absurdity in November 2013 at 
the annual U.N. climate summit held in Warsaw, Poland. The gathering was 
sponsored by a panoply of fossil fuel companies, including a major miner of lignite 
coal, while the Polish government hosted a parallel "Coal & Climate 
Summit," which held up the dirtiest of all the fossil fuels as part of the battle against 
global warming. The official U.N. climate negotiation process gave its tacit 
endorsement of the coal event when its highest official — Christiana Figueres, 
executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate 
Change — agreed to deliver a keynote address to the gathering, defying calls from 
activists to boycott. "The summit's focus on continued reliance on coal is directly 
counter to the goal of these climate negotiations," said Alden Meyer of the Union 
of Concerned Scientists, "which is to dramatically reduce emissions of heat- 


trapping gases in order to avoid the worst impacts of climate change." 

A great many progressives have opted out of the climate change debate in part 
because they thought that the Big Green groups, flush with philanthropic dollars, 
had this issue covered. That, it turns out, was a grave mistake. To understand why, 
it's necessary to return, once again, to the epic case of bad historical timing that 
has plagued this crisis since the late eighties. 


The Golden Age of Environmental Law 

I. F. Stone may have thought that environmentalism was distracting the youth of 
the 1960s and early 1970s from more urgent battles, but by today's standards, the 
environmentalists of that era look like fire-breathing radicals. Galvanized by the 
1962 publication of Silent Spring and the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill (the 
Deep water Horizon disaster of its day), they launched a new kind of North 
American environmentalism, one far more confrontational than the gentlemen's 
conservationism of the past. 

In addition to the newly formed Friends of the Earth (created in 1969) and 
Greenpeace (launched in 1971), the movement also included groups like the 
Environmental Defense Fund, then an idealistic gang of scrappy scientists and 
lawyers determined to heed Rachel Carson's warnings. The group's unofficial 
slogan was, "Sue the bastards," and so they did. The EDF fought for and filed the 
original lawsuit that led to the U.S. ban on DDT as an insecticide, resulting in the 


revival of many species of birds, including the bald eagle. 

This was a time when intervening directly in the market to prevent harm was 
still regarded as a sensible policy option. Confronted with unassailable evidence 
of a grave collective problem, politicians across the political spectrum still asked 
themselves: "What can we do to stop it?" (Not: "How can we develop complex 
financial mechanisms to help the market fix it for us?") 

What followed was a wave of environmental victories unimaginable by today's 
antigovernment standards. In the United States, the legislative legacy is 
particularly striking: the Clean Air Act (1963), the Wilderness Act (1964), the 
Water Quality Act (1965), the Air Quality Act (1967), the Wild and Scenic Rivers 
Act (1968), the National Environmental Policy Act (1970), the revised Clean Air 
Act (1970), the Occupational Safety and Health Act (1970), the Clean Water Act 

(1972) , the Marine Mammal Protection Act (1972), the Endangered Species Act 

(1973) , the Safe Drinking Water Act (1974), the Toxic Substances Control Act 
(1976), the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (1976). In all, twenty-three 
federal environmental acts became law over the course of the 1970s alone, 
culminating in the Superfund Act in 1980, which required industry, through a small 
levy, to pay the cost of cleaning up areas that had become toxic. 

These victories spilled over into Canada, which was also experiencing a flurry 
of environmental activism. The federal government passed its own Water Act 
(1970) and Clean Air Act (1971), and gave teeth to the nineteenth-century 
Fisheries Act a few years later, turning it into a powerful force for combating 
marine pollution and protecting habitats. Meanwhile, the European Community 


declared environmental protection a top priority as early as 1972, laying the 
groundwork for its leadership in environmental law in the decades to follow. And 
in the wake of the U.N. Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm that 
same year, the 1970s became a foundational decade for international 
environmental law, producing such landmarks as the Convention on the Prevention 
of Marine Pollution by Dumping of Wastes and Other Matter (1972), the 
Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora 
(1973), and the Convention on Long-Range Transboundary Air Pollution (1979). 

Although robust environmental law would not begin to take hold in much of the 
developing world for another decade or so, direct environmental defense also 
intensified in the 1970s among peasant, fishing, and Indigenous communities 
across the Global South — the origins of what economist Joan Martinez Alier and 
others have described as the "environmentalism of the poor." This stretched from 
creative, women-led campaigns against deforestation in India and Kenya, to 
widespread resistance to nuclear power plants, dams, and other forms of industrial 


development in Brazil, Colombia, and Mexico. 

Simple principles governed this golden age of environmental legislation: ban or 
severely limit the offending activity or substance and where possible, get the 
polluter to pay for the cleanup. As journalist Mark Dowie outlines in his history of 
the U.S. environmental movement, Losing Ground, the real-world results of this 
approach were concrete and measurable. "Tens of millions of acres have been 
added to the federal wilderness system, environmental impact assessments are now 
required for all major developments, some lakes that were declared dead are living 
again.... Lead particulates have been impressively reduced in the atmosphere; 
DDT is no longer found in American body fat, which also contains considerably 
fewer polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) than it once did. Mercury has virtually 
disappeared from Great Lakes sediment; and Strontium 90 is no longer found in 
either cows' milk or mothers' milk." And Dowie stressed: "What all these facts 
have in common is that they are the result of outright bans against the use or 


production of the substances in question." 

These are the tough tools with which the environmental movement won its 
greatest string of victories. But with that success came some rather significant 
changes. For a great many groups, the work of environmentalism stopped being 
about organizing protests and teach-ins and became about drafting laws, then suing 
corporations for violating them, as well as challenging governments for failing to 
enforce them. In rapid fashion, what had been a rabble of hippies became a 
movement of lawyers, lobbyists, and U.N. summit hoppers. As a result, many of 


these newly professional environmentalists came to pride themselves on being the 
ultimate insiders, able to wheel and deal across the political spectrum. And so long 
as the victories kept coming, their insider strategy seemed to be working. Then 
came the 1980s. "A tree is a tree," Ronald Reagan famously said in the midst of a 
pitched battle over logging rights. "How many more do you need to look at?" With 
Reagan's arrival in the White House, and the ascendency of many think-tank 
ideologues to powerful positions in his administration, the goalposts were yanked 
to the right. Reagan filled his inner circle with pro-industry scientists who denied 
the reality of every environmental ill from acid rain to climate change. And 
seemingly overnight, banning and tightly regulating harmful industrial practices 
went from being bipartisan political practice to a symptom of "command and 
control environmentalism." Using messaging that would have fit right in at a 
Heartland conference three decades later, James Watt, Reagan's much despised 
interior secretary, accused greens of using environmental fears "as a tool to achieve 
a greater objective," which he claimed was "centralized planning and control of 
the society." Watt also warned darkly about where that could lead: "Look what 
happened to Germany in the 1930s. The dignity of man was subordinated to the 
powers of Nazism. The dignity of man was subordinated in Russia. Those are the 


forces that this thing can evolve into." 

For the Big Green groups, all this came as a rude surprise. Suddenly they were 
on the outside looking in, being red-baited by the kinds of people with whom they 
used to have drinks. Worse, the movement's core beliefs about the need to respond 
to environmental threats by firmly regulating corporations were being casually cast 
into the dustbin of history. What was an insider environmentalist to do? 

Extreme 1980s Makeover 

There were options, as there always are. The greens could have joined coalitions 
of unions, civil rights groups, and pensioners who were also facing attacks on hard- 
won gains, forming a united front against the public sector cutbacks and 
deregulation that was hurting them all. And they could have kept aggressively 
using the courts to sue the bastards. There was, throughout the 1980s, mounting 
public concern even among Republicans about Reagan's environmental rollbacks 


(which is how Planet Earth ended up on the cover of Time in early 1989). 

And some did take up that fight. As Reagan launched a series of attacks on 
environmental regulations, there was resistance, especially at the local level, where 


African American communities in particular were facing an aggressive new wave 
of toxic dumping. These urgent, health-based struggles eventually coalesced into 
the environmental justice movement, which held the First National People of Color 
Environmental Leadership Summit in October 1991, a historic gathering that 


adopted a set of principles that remains a movement touchstone to this day. At 
the national and international levels, groups like Greenpeace continued to engage 
in direct action throughout the 1980s, though much of their energy was 
understandably focused on the perils of both nuclear energy and weapons. 

But many green groups chose a very different strategy. In the 1980s, extreme 
free market ideology became the discourse of power, the language that elites were 
speaking to one another, even if large parts of the general public remained un- 
persuaded. That meant that for the mainstream green movement, confronting the 
antigovernment logic of market triumphalism head-on would have meant exiling 
themselves to the margins. And many of the big-budget green groups — having 
grown comfortable with their access to power and generous support from large, 
elite foundations — were unwilling to do that. Gus Speth, who co-founded the 
Natural Resources Defense Council and served as a top environmental advisor to 
Jimmy Carter during his presidency, described the problem like this: "We didn't 
adjust with Reagan. We kept working within a system but we should have tried to 


change the system and root causes." (After years in high-level jobs inside the 
U.N. system and as a dean of Yale's School of Forestry and Environmental 
Studies, Speth has today thrown his lot in with the radicals, getting arrested to 
protest the Keystone XL pipeline and co-founding an organization questioning the 
logic of economic growth.) Part of what increased the pressure for ideological 
conformity in the 1980s was the arrival of several new groups on the environmental 
scene, competing for limited philanthropic dollars. These groups pitched 
themselves as modern environmentalists for the Reagan era: pro-business, non- 
confrontational, and ready to help polish even the most tarnished corporate logos. 
"Our approach is one of collaboration, rather than confrontation. We are creative, 
entrepreneurial, and partnership-driven. We don't litigate,"explains the 
Conservation Fund, founded in 1985. Two years later came Conservation 
International, which claims to have "single-handedly redefined conservation" 
thanks largely to a philosophy of working "with companies large and small to make 


conservation part of their business model." 

This open-for-business approach was so adept at attracting big donors and elite 
access that many older, more established green groups raced to get with the 
agreeable program, taking an "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" attitude to brazen 


extremes. It was in this period that the Nature Conservancy started loosening its 
definition of "preservation" so that conservation lands would eventually 
accommodate such dissonant activities as mansion building and oil drilling (laying 
the foundation for the group to get in on the drilling action itself). "I used to say 
that the only things not allowed on Nature Conservancy reserves were mining and 
slavery, and I wasn't sure about the latter," said Kieran Suckling of the Center for 


Biological Diversity. "Now I may have to withdraw the former as well." 

Indeed the pro-corporate conversion of large parts of the green movement in the 
1980s led to deep schisms inside the environmental movement. Some activists 
grew so disillusioned with the willingness of the big groups to partner with 
polluters that they broke away from the mainstream movement completely. Some 
formed more militant, confrontation-oriented groups like Earth First!, whose 
members attempted to stop loggers with sabotage and direct action. 

The debates, for the most part, took place behind the scenes but on April 23, 
1990, they spilled into the headlines. It was the day after Earth Day — at that time 
an annual ritual of mass corporate greenwashing — and around one thousand 
demonstrators stormed the New York and the Pacific Stock Exchanges to draw 
attention to the "institutions responsible for much of the ecological devastation 
which is destroying the planet." Members of grassroots groups like the Love Canal 
Homeowners Association, the Bhopal Action Resource Group, and the National 
Toxics Campaign handed out pamphlets that read in part, "Who is destroying the 
earth — are we all equally to blame? No! We say go to the source. We say take it 
to Wall Street!" The pamphlets went on: "The polluters would have us believe that 
we are all just common travelers on Spaceship Earth, when in fact a few of them 


are at the controls, and the rest of us are choking on their exhaust." This 
confrontational rhetoric — a foreshadowing of Occupy Wall Street two decades 
later, as well as the fossil fuel divestment movement — was an explicit critique of 
the corporate infiltration of the green movement. Daniel Finkenthal, a 
spokesperson for the anticorporate protests, declared, "Real environmental groups 
are disgusted with the corporate buyout of Earth Day," telling one journalist that 
sponsors are "spending more money on Earth Day promotion than they are on 


actual corporate reform and the environment." 


Climate Policy and the Price of Surrender 

Of all the big green groups that underwent pro-business makeovers in the 1980s, 
none attracted more acrimony or disappointment than the Environmental Defense 
Fund, the once combative organization that had spent its early years translating 
Rachel Carson's ideas into action. In the mid-1980s, a young lawyer named Fred 
Krupp took the reins of the organization and he was convinced that the group's 
"sue the bastards" motto was so out of step with the times that it belonged at a 
garage sale next to dog-eared copies of The Limits to Growth. Under Krupp' s 
leadership, which continues to this day, the EDF's new goal became: "creating 
markets for the bastards," as his colleague Eric Pooley would later characterize 


it. - And it was this transformation, more than any other, that produced a 
mainstream climate movement that ultimately found it entirely appropriate to have 
coal and oil companies sponsor their most important summits, while investing their 
own wealth with these same players. 

The new era was officially inaugurated on November 20, 1986, when Krupp 
published a cocky op-ed in The Wall Street Journal. In it he announced that a new 
generation of pro-business environmentalists had arrived and with it "a new 
strategy in the movement." Krupp explained that his generation rejected the old- 
fashioned idea that "either the industrial economy wins or the environment wins, 
with one side's gain being the other's loss. The new environmentalism does not 
accept 'either-or' as inevitable and has shown that in many critical instances it is a 
fallacy." Rather than attempting to ban harmful activities, as Krupp' s own 
organization had helped to do with DDT, the EDF would now form partnerships 
with polluters — or "coalitions of former enemies" — and persuade them that there 
are cost savings as well as new markets in going green. In time, Walmart, 
McDonald's, FedEx, and AT&T would all enjoy high-profile partnerships 


with this storied environmental pioneer. 

The group prided itself on putting "results" above ideology, but in truth Krupp' s 
EDF was highly ideological — it's just that its ideology was the pro-corporate 
groupthink of the day, one that holds that private, market-based solutions are 
inherently superior to simple regulatory ones. A turning point came in 1988 when 
George H. W. Bush came to power promising action on acid rain. The old way of 
addressing the problem would have been straightforward: since sulfur dioxide 
emissions were the primary cause of acid rain, the solution would have been to 
require their reduction by a fixed amount across the board. Instead, the EDF pushed 
for the first full-fledged cap-and-trade system. These rules did not tell polluters 
that they had to cut their sulfur emissions but, instead, set a nationwide cap on 


sulfur dioxide, beneath which big emitters like coal-fired power plants could do as 
they pleased — pay other companies to make reductions for them, purchase 
allowances permitting them to pollute as much as they had before, or make a profit 


by selling whatever permits they didn't use. 

The new approach worked and it was popular among foundations and private 
donors, particularly on Wall Street, where financiers were understandably attracted 
to the idea of harnessing the profit motive to solve environmental ills. Under 
Krupp's leadership, the EDF's annual budget expanded from $3 million to roughly 
$120 million. Julian Robertson, founder of the hedge fund Tiger Management, 
underwrote the EDF's work to the tune of $40 million, a staggering sum for a 


single benefactor. The Environmental Defense Fund has always insisted that it 
does not take donations from the companies with which it forms partnerships — 
that, writes EDF senior vice president for strategy and communications Eric 
Pooley, "would undermine our independence and integrity." But the policy doesn't 
bear much scrutiny. For instance, one of the EDF's flagship partnerships is with 
Walmart, with whom it collaborates to "make the company more sustainable." And 
it's true that Walmart doesn't donate to the EDF directly. However, the Walton 
Family Foundation, which is entirely controlled by members of the family that 
founded Walmart, gave the EDF $65 million between 2009 and 2013. In 201 1, the 
foundation provided the group with nearly 15 percent of its funding. Meanwhile, 
Sam Rawlings Walton, grandson of Walmart founder Sam Walton, sits on the 
EDF's board of trustees (identified merely as "Boatman, Philanthropist, 


Entrepreneur" on the organization's website). 

The EDF claims that it "holds Walmart to the same standards we would any 
other company." Which, judging by Walmart' s rather dismal environmental record 
since this partnership began — from its central role in fueling urban sprawl to its 


steadily increasing emissions — is not a very high standard at all. 

Nor is the Environmental Defense Fund the only environmental organization to 
have benefited from the Walton family's largesse. Their foundation is one of the 
top green funders, handing out more than $71 million in grants for environmental 
causes in 2011, with about half of the money going to the EDF, Conservation 
International, and the Marine Stewardship Council. All have partnerships with 
Walmart, whether to lower emissions, stamp an eco label on some of the seafood 
the company sells, or to co-launch a line of "mine to market" jewelry. Stacy 
Mitchell, a researcher with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, observes that 
having large parts of the green movement so dependent on the scions of a company 
that almost singlehandedly supersized the retail sector and exported the model 


around the world has had profound political implications. "Walmart's money is 
exerting significant influence in setting the agenda, defining the problems, and 
elevating certain kinds of approaches — notably those that reinforce, rather than 
challenge, the power of large corporations in our economy and society," she 


writes. And this is the heart of the issue — not simply that a group that gets a large 
portion of its budget from the Walton family fortune is unlikely to be highly critical 
of Walmart. The 1990s was the key decade when the contours of the climate battle 
were being drawn — when a collective strategy for rising to the challenge was 
developed and when the first wave of supposed solutions was presented to the 
public. It was also the period when Big Green became most enthusiastically pro- 
corporate, most committed to a low-friction model of social change in which 
everything had to be "win-win." And in the same period many of the corporate 
partners of groups like the EDF and the Nature Conservancy — Walmart, FedEx, 
GM — were pushing hard for the global de-regulatory framework that has done so 
much to send emissions soaring. 

This alignment of economic interests — combined with the ever powerful desire 
to be seen as "serious" in circles where seriousness is equated with toeing the pro- 
market line — fundamentally shaped how these green groups conceived of the 
climate challenge from the start. Global warming was not defined as a crisis being 
fueled by overconsumption, or by high emissions industrial agriculture, or by car 
culture, or by a trade system that insists that vast geographical distances do not 
matter — root causes that would have demanded changes in how we live, work, eat, 
and shop. Instead, climate change was presented as a narrow technical problem 
with no end of profitable solutions within the market system, many of which were 
available for sale at Walmart. 

The effect of this "bounding of the debate," as the Scottish author and 
environmentalist Alastair Mcintosh describes it, reaches far beyond a few U.S. 
groups. "In my experience," writes Mcintosh, "most international climate change 
agency personnel take the view that 'we just can't go there' in terms of the politics 
of cutting consumerism." This is usually framed as an optimistic faith in markets, 
but in fact it "actually conceals pessimism because it keeps us in the displacement 
activity of barking up the wrong tree. It is an evasion of reality, and with it, the 
need to fundamentally appraise the human condition in order to seek the roots of 


hope." Put another way, the refusal of so many environmentalists to consider 
responses to the climate crisis that would upend the economic status quo forces 
them to place their hopes in solutions — whether miracle products, or carbon 
markets, or "bridge fuels" — that are either so weak or so high-risk that entrusting 


them with our collective safety constitutes what can only be described as magical 
thinking. I do not question the desire on the part of these self-styled pragmatists to 
protect the earth from catastrophic warming. But between the Heartlanders who 
recognize that climate change is a profound threat to our economic and social 
systems and therefore deny its scientific reality, and those who claim climate 
change requires only minor tweaks to business-as-usual and therefore allow 
themselves to believe in its reality, it's not clear who is more deluded. 

Shopping Our Way Out of It 

For a few years around the 2006 release of Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth, it 
seemed as if climate change was finally going to inspire the transformative 
movement of our era. Public belief in the problem was high, and the issue seemed 
to be everywhere. Yet on looking back on that period, what is strange is that all the 
energy seemed to be coming from the very top tier of society. In the first decade 
of the new millennium, climate talk was a strikingly elite affair, the stuff of Davos 
panels and gee-whiz TED Talks, of special green issues of Vanity Fair and 
celebrities arriving at the Academy Awards in hybrid cars. And yet behind the 
spectacle, there was virtually no discernible movement, at least not of the sort that 
anyone involved in the civil rights, antiwar, or women's movements would 
recognize. There were few mass marches, almost no direct action beyond the 
occasional media-friendly stunt, and no angry leaders (other than a former vice 
president of the United States). 

In a sense, the period represented a full-circle return to the gentlemen's 
clubhouse in which the conservation movement began, with Sierra Club cofounder 
John Muir persuading President Theodore Roosevelt to save large parts of 
Yosemite while the two men talked around the bonfire on a camping trip. And 
though the head of Conservation International did not go camping on the melting 
glaciers with George W. Bush in order toimpress upon him the reality of climate 
change, there were plenty of postmodern equivalents, including celebrity- studded 
eco-cruises that allowed Fortune 500 CEOs to get a closer look at endangered coral 
reefs. It wasn't that there was no role for the public. We were called upon 
periodically to write letters, sign petitions, turn off our lights for an hour, make a 
giant human hourglass that could be photographed from the sky. And of course we 
were always asked to send money to the Big Green groups that were supposedly 
just on the cusp of negotiating a solution to climate change on our behalf. But most 


of all, regular, noncelebrity people were called upon to exercise their consumer 
power — not by shopping less but by discovering new and exciting ways to 
consume more. And if guilt set in, well, we could click on the handy carbon 
calculators on any one of dozens of green sites and purchase an offset, and our sins 


would instantly be erased. 

In addition to not doing much to actually lower emissions, these various 
approaches also served to reinforce the very "extrinsic" values that we now know 
are the greatest psychological barriers to climate action — from the worship of 
wealth and fame for their own sakes to the idea that change is something that is 
handed down from above by our betters, rather than something we demand for 
ourselves. They may even have played a role in weakening public belief in the 
reality of human-caused climate change. Indeed a growing number of 
communications specialists now argue that because the "solutions" to climate 
change proposed by many green groups in this period were so borderline frivolous, 
many people concluded that the groups must have been exaggerating the scale of 
the problem. After all, if climate change really was as dire as Al Gore argued it 
was in An Inconvenient Truth, wouldn't the environmental movement be asking 
the public to do more than switch brands of cleaning liquid, occasionally walk to 
work, and send money? Wouldn't they be trying to shut down the fossil fuel 

"Imagine that someone came up with a brilliant new campaign against smoking. 
It would show graphic images of people dying of lung cancer followed by the 
punch line: 'It's easy to be healthy — smoke one less cigarette a month.' We know 
without a moment's reflection that this campaign would fail," wrote British climate 
activist and author George Marshall. "The target is so ludicrous, and the 
disconnection between the images and the message is so great, that most smokers 


would just laugh it off." 

It would be one thing if, while individuals were being asked to voluntarily 
"green" the minutiae of their lives, the Big Green NGOs had simultaneously gone 
after the big polluters, demanding that they match our individual small cuts in 
carbon emissions with large-scale, industry-wide reductions. And some did. But 
many of the most influential green groups did precisely the opposite. Not only did 
they help develop complex financial mechanisms to allow these corporations to 
keep emitting, they also actively campaigned to expand the market for one of the 
three main fossil fuels. 


Fracking and the Burning Bridge 

The gas industry itself came up with the pitch that it could be a "bridge" to a clean 
energy future back in the early 1980s. Then in 1988, with climate change 
awareness breaking into the mainstream, the American Gas Association began to 


explicitly frame its product as a response to the "greenhouse effect." 

In 1992, a coalition of progressive groups — including the Natural Resources 
Defense Council, Friends of the Earth, Environmental Action, and Public 
Citizen — officially embraced the idea, presenting a "Sustainable Energy 
Blueprint" to the incoming administration of Bill Clinton that included a 
significant role for natural gas. The NRDC was a particularly strong advocate, 
going on to call natural gas "the bridge to greater reliance on cleaner and renewable 


forms of energy." And at the time, it seemed to make a good deal of sense: 
renewable technology was less mature than it is now, and the gas in question was 
being extracted through conventional drilling methods. Today, the landscape has 
shifted dramatically on both counts. Renewable technologies have become 
radically more efficient and affordable, making a full transition to the power they 
provide both technologically and economically possible within the next few 
decades. The other key change is that the vast majority of new gas projects in North 
America rely on hydraulic fracturing — not conventional drilling — and fracking- 


based exploration and production are on the rise around the world. 

These developments have significantly weakened the climate case for natural 
gas — especially fracked natural gas. We now know that fracked natural gas may 
leak enough methane to make its warming impact, especially in the near term, 
comparable to that of coal. Anthony Ingraffea, who coauthored the breakthrough 
Cornell study on methane leakage and describes himself as "a longtime oil and gas 
engineer who helped develop shale fracking techniques for the Energy 
Department," wrote in The New York Times, "The gas extracted from shale 
deposits is not a 'bridge' to a renewable energy future — it's a gangplank to more 


warming and away from clean energy investments." 

We also know, from experience in the U.S., that cheap and abundant natural gas 
doesn't replace only coal but also potential power from renewables. This has led 
the Tyndall Centre's Kevin Anderson to conclude, "If we are serious about 
avoiding dangerous climate change, the only safe place for shale gas remains in 
the ground." Biologist Sandra Steingraber of New Yorkers Against Fracking puts 
the stark choice like this: we are "standing at an energy crossroads. One signpost 
points to a future powered by digging fossils from the ground and lighting them 


on fire. The other points to renewable energy. You cannot go in both directions at 
once. Subsidizing the infrastructure for one creates disincentives for the other." 

Even more critically, many experts are convinced that we do not need 
unconventional fuels like fracked gas to make a full transition to renew ables. Mark 
Z. Jacobson, the Stanford engineering professor who coauthored the road map for 
reaching 100 percent renewable energy by 2030, says that conventional fossil fuels 
can power the transition and keep the lights on in the meantime. "We don't need 
unconventional fuels to produce the infrastructure to convert to entirely clean and 
renewable wind, water, and solar power for all purposes. We can rely on the 
existing infrastructure plus the new infrastructure [of renewable generation] to 
provide the energy for producing the rest of the clean infrastructure that we'll 
need," he said in an interview, adding, "Conventional oil and gas is much more 
than enough." How have the Big Green groups responded to this new 
information? Some, like the NRDC, have cooled off from their earlier support, 
acknowledging the risks and pushing for tougher regulations while still advocating 
natural gas as a replacement for coal and other dirty fuels. But others have chosen 
to dig in even deeper. The Environmental Defense Fund and the Nature 
Conservancy, for example, have responded to revelations about the huge risks 
associated with natural gas by undertaking a series of initiatives that give the 
distinct impression that fracking is on the cusp of becoming clean and safe. And 
as usual, much of the funding for this work has strong links to the fossil fuel sector. 

The Nature Conservancy, for its part, has received hundreds of thousands of 
dollars from JP Morgan to come up with voluntary rules for fracking. JP Morgan, 
unsurprisingly, is a leading financier of the industry, with at least a hundred major 
clients who frack, according to the bank's top environmental executive, Matthew 
Arnold. ("We are number one or number two in any given year in the oil and gas 
industry worldwide," Arnold told 77^ Guardian in February 2013.) The 
conservancy also has a high-profile partnership with BP in Wyoming's Jonah 
Field, a huge fracking-for-gas operation in an area rich with vulnerable wildlife. 
The Nature Conservancy's job has been to identify habitat preservation and 
conservation projects to "offset the impacts of oil and gas drilling pads and 
infrastructure." From a climate change perspective, this is an absurd proposition, 
since these projects have no hope of offsetting the most damaging impact of all: 
the release of heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere. Which is why the most 
important preservation work that any environmental group can do is preserving the 
carbon in the ground, wherever it is. (Then again, this is The Nature Conservancy, 


which has its very own gas well in the middle of a nature preserve in Texas). 


Similarly, the EDF has teamed up with several large energy companies to open 
the Center for Sustainable Shale Development (CSSD) — and as many have pointed 
out, the very name of the center makes it clear that it will not be questioning 
whether "sustainable" extraction of fossil fuels from shale is possible in the age of 
climate change. The center has advanced a set of voluntary industry standards that 
its members claim will gradually make fracking safer. But as then-Demos senior 
policy analyst J. Mijin Cha pointed out, "The Center's new standards ... are not 
enforceable. If anything, they provide cover for oil and gas interests that want to 


derail the transition to a clean economy powered by renewable energy." 

One of the center's key funders is the Heinz Endowments, which as it turns out, 
was no disinterested party. A June 2013 investigation by the Public Accountability 
Initiative reported that, "The Heinz Endowments, has significant, undisclosed ties 
to the natural gas industry.... Heinz Endowments president Robert F. Vagt is 
currently a director at Kinder Morgan, a natural gas pipeline company, and owns 
more than $1.2 million in company stock. This is not disclosed on the Heinz 
Endowments website or the website of CSSD, where Vagt serves as a director. 
Kinder Morgan has cited increased regulation of fracking as a key business risk in 
recent corporate filings." (After the controversy broke, Heinz Endowments 
appeared to move away from some of its earlier pro-gas positions and went through 
a significant staffing shakeup, including the resignation of Vagt as foundation 


president in early 2014.) 

The EDF has also received a $6 million grant from the foundation of New York' s 
billionaire ex-mayor Michael Bloomberg (who is strongly pro-fracking), 
specifically to develop and secure regulations intended to make fracking safe — 
once again, not to impartially assess whether such an outcome is even possible. 
And Bloomerg is no impartial observer in all this. The former mayor's personal 
and philanthropic fortune — worth over $30 billion — is managed by investment 
firm Willett Advisors, which was established by Bloomberg and his associates. 
According to Bloomberg Businessweek, and confirmed by Bloomberg 
Philanthropies (which shares a building with the firm), Willett "invests in real 
assets focusing on oil and natural gas areas." Michael Bloomberg did not respond 
to repeated requests for comment. The EDF has done more than help the fracking 
industry appear to be taking environmental concerns seriously. It also led research 
that has been used to counter claims that high methane leakage disqualifies fracked 
natural gas as a climate solution. The EDF has partnered with Shell, Chevron, and 
other top energy companies on one in a series of studies on methane leaks with the 
clear goal, as one EDF official put it, of helping "natural gas to be an accepted part 


of a strategy for improving energy security and moving to a clean energy future." 
When the first study arrived in September 2013, published in Proceedings of the 
National Academy of Sciences, it made news by identifying fugitive methane 
leakage rates from gas extraction that were ten to twenty times lower than those in 
most other studies to date.~ 

But the study's design contained serious limitations, the most glaring of which 
was allowing the gas companies to choose the wells they wanted inspected. Robert 
Howarth, the lead author of the breakthrough 2011 Cornell study on the same 
subject, pointed out that the EDF's findings were "based only on evaluation of 
sites and times chosen by industry," and that the paper "must be viewed as a best- 
case scenario," rather than a reflection of how the industry functions as a whole. 
He added, "The gas industry can produce gas with relatively low emissions, but 
they very often do not do so. They do better when they know they are being 
carefully watched." These concerns, however, were entirely upstaged by the 
priceless headlines inspired by the Environmental Defense Fund study: "Study: 
Leaks at Natural Gas Wells Less Than Previously Thought" (Time); "Study: 
Methane Leaks from Gas Drilling Not Huge" (Associated Press); 'Tracking 


Methane Fears Overdone" (The Australian); and so on. 

The result of all this has been a great deal of public uncertainty. Is fracking safe 
after all? Is it about to become safe? Is it clean or dirty? Like the well-understood 
strategy of sowing doubts about the science of climate change, this confusion 
effectively undermines the momentum away from fossil fuels and toward 
renewable energy. As Josh Fox, the director of the Academy Award-nominated 
documentary on fracking, Gasland, puts it: "I think that what's happening here is 
a squandering of the greatest political will that we've ever had towards getting off 


of fossil fuels." Because while green groups battle over the research and 
voluntary codes, the gas companies are continuing to drill, leak, and pour billions 
of dollars into new infrastructure designed to last for many decades. 

Trading in Pollution 

When governments began negotiating the international climate treaty that would 
become the Kyoto Protocol, there was broad consensus about what the agreement 
needed to accomplish. The wealthy, industrialized countries responsible for the 
lion's share of historical emissions would have to lead by capping their emissions 
at a fixed level and then systematically reducing them. The European Union and 


developing countries assumed that governments would do this by putting in place 
strong domestic measures to reduce emissions at home, for example by taxing 
carbon, and beginning a shift to renewable energy. 

But when the Clinton administration came to the negotiations, it proposed an 
alternate route: create a system of international carbon trading modeled on the cap- 
and-trade system used to address acid rain (in the runup to Kyoto, the EDF worked 


closely on the plan with Al Gore's office). Rather than straightforwardly 
requiring all industrialized countries to lower their greenhouse gas emissions by a 
fixed amount, the scheme would issue pollution permits, which they could use, sell 
if they didn't need them, or purchase so that they could pollute more. National 
programs would be set up so that companies could similarly trade these permits, 
with the country staying within an overall emissions cap. Meanwhile, projects that 
were employing practices that claimed to be keeping carbon out of the 
atmosphere — whether by planting trees that sequester carbon, or by producing low 
carbon energy, or by upgrading a dirty factory to lower its emissions — could 
qualify for carbon credits. These credits could be purchased by polluters and used 
to offset their own emissions. 

The U.S. government was so enthusiastic about this approach that it made the 
inclusion of carbon trading a deal breaker in the Kyoto negotiations. This led to 
what France's former environment minister Dominique Voynet described as 
"radically antagonistic" conflicts between the United States and Europe, which 
saw the creation of a global carbon market as tantamount to abandoning the climate 
crisis to "the law of the jungle." Angela Merkel, then Germany's environment 
minister, insisted, "The aim cannot be for industrialized countries to satisfy their 
obligations solely through emissions trading and profit." 

It is one of the great ironies of environmental history that the United States — 
after winning this pitched battle at the negotiating table — would fail to ratify the 
Kyoto Protocol, and that the most important emissions market would become a 
reality in Europe, where it was opposed from the outset. The European Union's 
Emissions Trading System (ETS) was launched in 2005 and would go on to 
become closely integrated with the United Nations' Clean Development 
Mechanism (CDM), which was written into the Kyoto Protocol. At least initially, 
the markets seemed to take off. From 2005 through 2010, the World Bank 
estimates that the various carbon markets around the globe saw over $500 billion 
in trades (though some experts believe those estimates are inflated). Huge numbers 
of projects around the world, meanwhile, are generating carbon credits — the CDM 
alone had an estimated seven-thousand-plus registered projects in early 2014.~ 


But it didn't take long for the flaws in the plan to show. Under the U.N. system, 
all kinds of dodgy industrial projects can generate lucrative credits. For instance, 
oil companies operating in the Niger Delta that practice "flaring" — setting fire to 
the natural gas released in the oil drilling process because capturing and using the 
potent greenhouse gas is more expensive than burning it — have argued that they 
should be paid if they stop engaging in this enormously destructive practice. And 
indeed some are already registered to receive carbon credits under the U.N. system 
for no longer flaring — despite the fact that gas flaring has been illegal in Nigeria 


since 1984 (it's a law filled with holes and is largely ignored). Even a highly 
polluting factory that installs a piece of equipment that keeps a greenhouse gas out 
of the atmosphere can qualify as "green development" under U.N. rules. And this, 
in turn, is used to justify more dirty emissions somewhere else. 

The most embarrassing controversy for defenders of this model involves coolant 
factories in India and China that emit the highly potent greenhouse gas HFC-23 as 
a by-product. By installing relatively inexpensive equipment to destroy the gas 
(with a plasma torch, for example) rather than venting it into the air, these 
factories — most of which produce gases used for air-conditioning and 
refrigeration — have generated tens of millions of dollars in emission credits every 
year. The scheme is so lucrative, in fact, that it has triggered a series of perverse 
incentives: in some cases, companies can earn twice as much by destroying an 
unintentional by-product as they can from making their primary product, which is 
itself emissions intensive. In the most egregious instance of this, selling carbon 
credits constituted a jaw-dropping 93.4 percent of one Indian firm's total revenues 
in 2012.- 

According to one group that petitioned the U.N. to change its policies on HFC- 
23 projects, there is "overwhelming evidence that manufacturers are gaming" the 
system "by producing more potent greenhouse gases just so they can get paid to 


destroy them." But it gets worse: the primary product made by these factories is 
a type of coolant that is so damaging to the ozone that it is being phased out under 
the Montreal Protocol on ozone depletion. 

And this is not some marginal piece of the world emissions market — as of 2012, 
the U.N. system awarded these coolant manufacturers its largest share of emission 
credits, more than any genuinely clean energy projects. Since then, the U.N. has 
enacted some partial reforms, and the European Union has banned credits from 
these factories in its carbon market. 

It should hardly be surprising that so many questionable offset projects have 
come to dominate the emissions market. The prospect of getting paid real money 


based on projections of how much of an invisible substance is kept out of the air 
tends to be something of a scam magnet. And the carbon market has attracted a 
truly impressive array of grifters and hustlers who scour biologically rich but 
economically poor nations like Papua New Guinea, Ecuador, and Congo, often 
preying on the isolation of Indigenous people whose forests can be classified as 
offsets. These carbon cowboys, as they have come to be called, arrive bearing 
aggressive contracts (often written in English, with no translation) in which large 
swaths of territory are handed over to conservation groups on the promise of 
money for nothing. In the bush of Papua New Guinea, carbon deals are known as 
"sky money"; in Madagascar, where the promised wealth has proved as ephemeral 
as the product being traded, the Betsimisaraka people talk of strangers who are 
"selling the wind."~ 

A notorious carbon cowboy is Australian David Nilsson, who runs a particularly 
fly-by-night operation; in one recent incarnation, his carbon credit enterprise 
reportedly consisted only of an answering service and a web domain. After Nilsson 
tried to convince the Matses people in Peru to sign away their land rights in 
exchange for promises of billions in revenues from carbon credits, a coalition of 
Indigenous people in the Amazon Basin called for Nilsson to be expelled from the 
country. And they alleged that Nilsson' s pitch was "similar to 100 other carbon 
projects" which were "dividing our people with non-existent illusions of being 
millionaires." Some Indigenous leaders even say that it is easier to deal with big 
oil and mining companies, because at least people understand who these 
companies are and what they want; less so when the organization after your land 
is a virtuous- seeming NGO and the product it is trying to purchase is something 
that cannot be seen or touched.^ 

This points to a broader problem with offsets, one that reaches beyond the 
official trading systems and into a web of voluntary arrangements administered by 
large conservation groups in order to unofficially "offset" the emissions of big 
polluters. Particularly in the early days of offsetting, after forest conservation 
projects began appearing in the late 1980s and early 1990s, by far the most 
persistent controversy was that — in the effort to quantify and control how much 
carbon was being stored so as to assign a monetary value to the standing trees — 
the people who live in or near those forests were sometimes pushed onto 
reservation-like parcels, locked out of their previous ways of life.~ This locking 
out could be literal, complete with fences and armed men patrolling the territory 
looking for trespassers. The NGOs claim that they were merely attempting to 


protect the resources and the carbon they represented, but all this was seen, quite 
understandably, as a form of land grabbing. 

For instance, in Parana, Brazil, at a project providing offsets for Chevron, GM, 
and American Electric Power and administered by The Nature Conservancy and a 
Brazilian NGO, Indigenous Guarani were not allowed to forage for wood or hunt 
in the places they'd always occupied, or even fish in nearby waterways. As one 
local put it, "They want to take our home from us." Cressant Rakotomanga, 
president of a community organization in Madagascar where the Wildlife 
Conservation Society is running an offset program, expressed a similar sentiment. 
"People are frustrated because before the project, they were completely free to 


hunt, fish and cut down the forests." 

Indeed the offset market has created a new class of "green" human rights abuses, 
wherein peasants and Indigenous people who venture into their traditional 
territories (reclassified as carbon sinks) in order to harvest plants, wood, or fish are 
harassed or worse. There is no comprehensive data available about these abuses, 
but the reported incidents are piling up. Near Guaraquecaba, Brazil, locals have 
reported being shot at by park rangers while they searched the forest for food and 
plants inside the Parana offset project hosted by The Nature Conservancy. "They 
don't want human beings in the forest," one farmer told the investigative journalist 
Mark Schapiro. And in a carbon-offset tree-planting project in Uganda's Mount 
Elgon National Park and Kibale National Park, run by a Dutch organization, 
villagers described a similar pattern of being fired upon and having their crops 

In the wake of such reports, some of the green groups involved in offsetting now 
stress their dedication to Indigenous rights. However, dissatisfaction remains and 
controversies continue to crop up. For example, in the Bajo Aguan region of 
Honduras, some owners of palm oil plantations have been able to register a carbon 
offset project that claims to capture methane. Spurred by the promise of cash for 
captured gas, sprawling tree farms have displaced local agriculture, leading to a 
violent cycle of land occupations and evictions that has left as many as a hundred 
local farmers and their advocates dead as of 2013. "The way we see it, it has 
become a crime to be a farmer here," says Heriberto Rodriguez of the Unified 
Campesino Movement of Aguan, which places part of the blame for the deaths on 
the carbon market itself. "Whoever gives the finance to these companies also 
becomes complicit in all these deaths. If they cut these funds, the landholders will 


feel somewhat pressured to change their methods." 


Though touted as a classic "win-win" climate solution, there are very few 
winners in these farms and forests. In order for multinational corporations to 
protect their freedom to pollute the atmosphere, peasants, farmers, and Indigenous 
people are losing their freedom to live and sustain themselves in peace. When the 
Big Green groups refer to offsets as the "low-hanging fruit" of climate action, they 
are in fact making a crude cost-benefit analysis that concludes that it's easier to 
cordon off a forest inhabited by politically weak people in a poor country than to 
stop politically powerful corporate emitters in rich countries — that it's easier to 
pick the fruit, in other words, than dig up the roots. 

The added irony is that many of the people being sacrificed for the carbon market 
are living some of the most sustainable, low-carbon lifestyles on the planet. They 
have strong reciprocal relationships with nature, drawing on local ecosystems on 
a small scale while caring for and regenerating the land so it continues to provide 
for them and their descendants. An environmental movement committed to real 
climate solutions would be looking for ways to support these ways of life — not 
severing deep traditions of stewardship and pushing more people to become 
rootless urban consumers. 

Chris Lang, a British environmentalist based in Jakarta who runs an offset 
watchdog website called REDD-Monitor, told me that he never thought his job 
would involve exposing the failings of the green movement. "I hate the idea of the 
environmental movement fighting among itself instead of fighting the oil 
companies," he said. "It's just that these groups don't seem to have any desire to 
take on the oil companies, and with some of them, I'm not sure they really are 


environmentalists at all." 

This is not to say that every project being awarded carbon credits is somehow 
fraudulent or actively destructive to local ways of life. Wind farms and solar arrays 
are being built, and some forests classified as offsets are being preserved. The 
problem is that by adopting this model of financing, even the very best green 
projects are being made ineffective as climate responses because for every ton of 
carbon dioxide the developers keep out of the atmosphere, a corporation in the 
industrialized world is able to pump a ton into the air, using offsets to claim the 
pollution has been neutralized. One step forward, one step back. At best, we are 
running in place. And as we will see, there are other, far more effective ways to 
fund green development than the international carbon market. 


Geographer Bram Biischer coined the term "liquid nature" to refer to what these 
market mechanisms are doing to the natural world. As he describes it, the trees, 
meadows, and mountains lose their intrinsic, place-based meaning and become 
deracinated, virtual commodities in a global trading system. The carbon- 
sequestering potential of biotic life is virtually poured into polluting industries like 
gas into a car's tank, allowing them to keep on emitting. Once absorbed into this 
system, a pristine forest may look as lush and alive as ever, but it has actually 
become an extension of a dirty power plant on the other side of the planet, attached 
by invisible financial transactions. Polluting smoke may not be billowing from the 
tops of its trees but it may as well be, since the trees that have been designated as 


carbon offsets are now allowing that pollution to take place elsewhere. 

The mantra of the early ecologists was "everything is connected" — every tree a 
part of an intricate web of life. The mantra of the corporate -partnered 
conservationists, in sharp contrast, may as well be "everything is disconnected," 
since they have successfully constructed a new economy in which the tree is not a 
tree but rather a carbon sink used by people thousands of miles away to appease 
our consciences and maintain our levels of economic growth. 

But the biggest problem with this approach is that carbon markets have failed 
even on their own terms, as markets. In Europe, the problems began with the 
decision to entice companies and countries to join the market by handing out a 
huge number of cheap carbon permits. When the economic crisis hit a few years 
later, it caused production and consumption to contract and emissions to drop on 
their own. That meant the new emissions market was drowning in excess permits, 
which in turn caused the price of carbon to drop dramatically (in 2013, a ton of 
carbon was trading for less than 04, compared to the target price of 020). That left 
little incentive to shift away from dirty energy or to buy carbon credits. Which 
helps explain why, in 2012, coal's share of the U.K.'s electricity production rose 
by more than 30 percent, while in Germany, as we have already seen, emissions 
from coal went up despite the country's rapid embrace of renewable power. 
Meanwhile, the United Nations Clean Development Mechanism has fared even 
worse: indeed it has "essentially collapsed," in the words of a report commissioned 
by the U.N. itself. "Weak emissions targets and the economic downturn in wealthy 
nations resulted in a 99 percent decline in carbon credit prices between 2008 and 
2013," explains Oscar Reyes, an expert on climate finance at the Institute for 


Policy Studies. 

This is a particularly extreme example of the boom-and-bust cycle of markets, 
which are volatile and high-risk by nature. And that's the central flaw with this so- 


called solution: it is simply too risky, and time is too short, for us to put our 
collective fate in such an inconstant and unreliable force. John Kerry has likened 
the threat of climate change to a "weapon of mass destruction," and it's a fair 


analogy. But if climate change poses risks on par with nuclear war, then why are 
we not responding with the seriousness that that comparison implies? Why aren't 
we ordering companies to stop putting our future at risk, instead of bribing and 
cajoling them? Why are we gambling? 

Tired of this time wasting, in February 2013, more than 130 environmental and 
economic justice groups called for the abolition of the largest carbon-trading 
system in the world, the EU's Emissions Trading System (ETS), in order "to make 
room for climate measures that work." The declaration stated that, seven years into 
this experiment, "The ETS has not reduced greenhouse gas emissions . . . the worst 
polluters have had little to no obligation to cut emissions at source. Indeed, offset 
projects have resulted in an increase of emissions worldwide: even conservative 
sources estimate that between and of carbon credits bought into the ETS 'do 


not represent real carbon reductions.' " 

The system has also allowed power companies and others to pass on the cost of 
compliance to their consumers, especially in the early years of the market, leading 
to a 2008 estimate by Point Carbon of windfall profits between $32 and $99 billion 
for electric utilities in the U.K., Germany, Spain, Italy, and Poland over a span of 
just five years. One report found airline companies raked in a windfall of up to 
$1.8 billion in their first year on the market in 2012. In short, rather than getting 
the polluters to pay for the mess they have created — a basic principle of 
environmental justice — taxpayers and ratepayers have heaped cash on them and 


for a scheme that hasn't even worked. 

In the context of the European debacle, the fact that the U.S. Senate failed to pass 
climate legislation in 2009 should not be seen, as it often is, as the climate 
movement' s greatest defeat, but rather as a narrowly dodged bullet. The cap-and- 
trade bills under consideration in the U.S. House and Senate in Obama's first term 
would have repeated all the errors of the European and U.N. emission trading 
systems, and then added some new ones of their own. 

Both laws were based on proposals crafted by a coalition put together by the 
Environmental Defense Fund's Fred Krupp, which had brought large polluters 
(General Electric, Dow Chemical, Alcoa, ConocoPhillips, BP, Shell, the coal giant 
Duke Energy, DuPont, and many more) together with a handful of Big Green 


groups (The Nature Conservancy, the National Wildlife Federation, the Natural 
Resources Defense Council, the World Resources Institute, and what was then 
called the Pew Center on Global Climate Change). Known as the United States 
Climate Action Partnership (USCAP), the coalition had been guided by the 
familiar defeatist logic that there is no point trying to take on the big emitters 
directly so it's better to try to get them onside with a plan laden with corporate 


handouts and loopholes. 

The deal that ultimately emerged out of USCAP — touted as a historic 
compromise between greens and industry — handed out enough free allowances to 
cover 90 percent of emissions from energy utilities, including coal plants, meaning 
they could keep on emitting that amount and pay no price at all. "We're not going 
to get a better deal," Duke Energy' s then CEO Jim Rogers boasted. "Ninety percent 
is terrific." Congressman Rick Boucher, a Democrat representing coal-rich 
southwestern Virginia, gushed that the bill had so many giveaways that it "ushered 


in a new golden age of coal." 

These "free allowances" to burn or trade carbon were, in essence, bribes. As 
solar entrepreneur Jigar Shah put it: "When you look at these companies that were 
in USCAP, they were not interested in regulating carbon. They were interested in 
a huge amount of wealth being transferred to their companies in exchange for their 
vote on climate change." Needless to say, a deal that made fossil fuel interests 
this happy would have brought us nowhere near the deep cuts to our greenhouse 
gas emissions that scientists tell us are required to have a good chance of keeping 
warming below 2 degrees Celsius. And yet the green groups in USCAP didn't 
merely stand back and let the corporations in a direct conflict of interest write U.S. 
climate policy — they actively recruited them to do so. 

And the saddest irony in all this pandering is that it still wasn't enough for the 
polluters. Working with USCAP to help draft climate legislation was, for many of 
the big corporate players who joined the coalition, a hedge. In 2007, when the 
coalition was formed, climate legislation looked extremely likely, and these 
companies wanted to be sure that whatever bill passed Congress was riddled with 
enough loopholes to be essentially meaningless — a classic Beltway strategy. They 
also knew that getting behind cap-and-trade was the best way of blocking the 
worrying prospect of a newly elected president using the Environmental Protection 
Agency (EPA) to put firm limits on the amount of carbon companies could emit. 
In fact, Waxman-Markey, the primary piece of climate legislation based on the 
coalition's blueprint, specifically barred the EPA from regulating carbon from 
many major pollution sources, including coal-fired power plants. Michael Parr, 


senior manager of government affairs at DuPont, summarized the corporate 


strategy succinctly: "You're either at the table or on the menu." 

The problem for Fred Krupp and his colleagues was that these companies were 
sitting at plenty of other tables at the same time. Many continued to be members 
of the American Petroleum Institute, the National Association of Manufacturers, 
and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce — all of which actively opposed climate 
legislation. When Barack Obama took office in January 2009, it looked like the 
corporate hard-liners were going to lose. But then, in the summer of 2009, with 
USCAP still trying to push cap-and-trade through the U.S. Senate, the political 
climate abruptly shifted. The economy was still deeply troubled, Obama' s 
popularity was tanking, and a new political force came to centerstage. Flush with 
oil money from the Koch brothers and pumped up by Fox News, the Tea Party 
stormed town-hall meetings across the country, shouting about how Obama' s 
healthcare reform was part of a sinister plan to turn the United States into an 
Islamic/Nazi/socialist Utopia. In short order, the president started sending signals 


that he was reluctant to pick another major legislative fight. 

That's when many of the key corporate members of USCAP began to realize 
that they now had a solid chance of scuttling climate legislation altogether. 
Caterpillar and BP dropped out of the coalition, as did ConocoPhillips, after having 
complained of "unrecoverable costs ... on what is historically a low-margin 
business." (ConocoPhillips revenues the year after it left USCAP totaled $66 
billion, with a tidy net income of $12.4 billion.) And some of these companies 
didn't just leave Krupp' s coalition of "former enemies": by directing their 
formidable firepower squarely at the legislation that they had helped craft, they 
made it abundantly clear that they had never stopped being its enemies. 
ConocoPhillips, for instance, set up a dedicated webpage to encourage visitors 
(including its roughly thirty thousand employees) to tell legislators how much they 
opposed the climate bill. "Climate change legislation will result in higher direct 
energy costs for the typical American family," the site warned, further claiming 
(outlandishly) that it "could result in a net loss of more than two million U.S. jobs 
each year." As for fellow defector BP, company spokesman Ronnie Chappell 
explained, "The lowest-cost option for reducing emissions is the increased use of 


natural gas." 

In other words, thinking they were playing a savvy inside game, Big Green was 
outmaneuvered on a grand scale. The environmentalists who participated in 
USCAP disastrously misread the political landscape. They chose a stunningly 
convoluted approach to tackling climate change, one that would have blocked far 


more effective strategies, specifically because it was more appealing to big 
emitters — only to discover that the most appealing climate policy to polluters 
remained none at all. Worse, once their corporate partners fled the coalition, they 
had no shortage of ammo to fire at their former friends. The climate bill was a 
boondoggle, they claimed (it was), filled with handouts and subsidies (absolutely), 
and it would pass on higher energy costs to cash-strapped consumers (likely). To 
top it all off, as pro-oil Republican congressman Joe Barton put it, "The 
environmental benefit is nonexistent" (as the left flank of the green movement had 
been saying all along). 

It was a classic double-cross, and it worked. In January 2010, the climate 
legislation modeled on USCAP's proposals died in the Senate, as it deserved to — 


but not before it discredited the very idea of climate action in the minds of many. 

Plenty of postmortems have been written about what the greens did wrong in the 
cap-and-trade fight but the hardest hitting came in a scathing report by Harvard 
University sociologist Theda Skocpol. She concluded that a major barrier to 
success was the absence of a mass movement applying pressure from below. "To 
counter fierce political opposition, reformers will have to build organizational 
networks across the country, and they will need to orchestrate sustained political 
efforts that stretch far beyond friendly Congressional offices, comfy boardrooms, 
and posh retreats."^ As we will see, a resurgent grassroots climate movement has 
now arrived that is doing precisely that — and it is winning a series of startling 
victories against the fossil fuel sector as a result. 

But old habits die hard. When the cap-and-trade fight in the U.S. Congress was 
finally over, with around half a billion dollars spent pushing the policy (ultimately 
down the drain), the man who led the pro-business revolution in the green 
movement offered his version of what went wrong. Fred Krupp — in a sharp gray 
suit, his well- styled hair now white after two and a half decades leading the 
Environmental Defense Fund — explained that climate legislation had failed 
because greens had been too hard-line, too "shrill," and needed to be more 


"humble" and more bipartisan. In other words, compromise some more, tone it 
down even further, assert ideas with less confidence, and try to be even more 
palatable to their opponents. Never mind that that is precisely what groups like 
EDF have been doing since Reagan. 


Fittingly enough, Krupp chose to share these pearls of wisdom during the annual 
Brainstorm Green session hosted by Fortune, a magazine devoted to the 


celebration of wealth, and sponsored by, among others, Shell Oil. 

~ By 2011, the situation had become so surreal that Conservation International (CI) was the target of an 
embarrassing prank. A couple of activist/journalists posed as executives of the weapons giant Lockheed 
Martin and told the director of corporate relations for CI that they were looking for help greening their 
company's image. Rather than cutting their emissions, they said they were thinking of sponsoring an 
endangered species. Without missing a beat, the CI representative was recorded helpfully suggesting a bird 
of prey, to make the "link with aviation." ("We do not help companies with their image," CI later 
maintained, stressing that Lockheed would have needed to undergo a "due diligence process.") 

~ After my article on the subject appeared in The Nation, The Nature Conservancy adopted a policy to 
"divest from companies that derive a significant percentage of their revenue from fossil fuels with the 
highest carbon content and will support a shift to carbon-free energy in the longer term." 

~ It's worth keeping this history in mind when free market ideologues treat a cleaner environment as a 
natural stage in capitalist development. In fact it is the result of specific sets of regulations, ones that run 
directly counter to hard-right ideology. 

" By the end of the 1980s, the majority of self-identified Republicans were telling pollsters that they thought 
there was "too little" spent protecting the environment. By 1990, the percentage of Republicans who agreed 
with that statement topped 70 percent. 

" Indeed the worlds of finance and Big Green would become so entangled in the years to come — between 
donations, board members, and partnerships — that when The Nature Conservancy needed a new CEO in 
2008, it recruited not from within the nonprofit world but from Goldman Sachs. Its current director, Mark 
Tercek, had been working at the notorious investment bank for some twenty-five years before moving over 
to the NGO, where he has consistently advanced a model of conservation based on bringing ever more parts 
of the natural world into the market. 

" This is one of the many ironies of the Heartlanders' claim that greens are closet socialists. If so, then they 
are deep in the closet. In reality, many mainstream environmentalists bristle at the suggestion that they are 
part of the left at all, fearing (correctly) that such an identification would hurt their chances with foundation 
funders and corporate donors. Far from using climate change as a tool to alter the American way of life, 
many of the large environmental organizations spend their days doing everything in their power to furiously 
protect that way of life, at the direct expense of demanding the levels of change required by science. 

" The Nature Conservancy, ever the envelope pusher, has been particularly enthusiastic in this regard, hiring 
its chief marketing officer straight from World Wrestling Entertainment and participating in the marketing 
frenzy that accompanied the release of Universal Pictures' film version of The Lorax (which used Dr. 
Seuss's anti-consumerism classic to hawk IHOP pancakes and Mazda SUVs). In 2012, the conservancy 
managed to outrage many of its female staffers by partnering with the online luxury goods retailer Gilt to 
promote the Sports IllustratedSwimsuit Edition (the magazine explained that "whether you decide to buy a 
bikini, surfboards or tickets to celebrate at our parties, any money you spend . . . will help The Nature 
Conservancy ensure we have beaches to shoot Swimsuit on for another half-century"). 

" Interestingly, before Nilsson got into the carbon game, he was investigated by a member of Queensland's 
parliament for selling what appeared to be entirely fictional Australian real estate to unlucky marks in none 
other than Nauru. 

" Heartland regular Chris Horner called the bill "crony capitalism" on the Enron model — and Horner should 
know, because he used to work there. 




The Green Billionaires Won't Save Us 

"I had always got away with breaking rules and thought this was no 
different. I would have got away with it as well if I hadn't been greedy." 

-Richard Branson, on getting caught dodging taxes in the early 1970s 1 

"You gotta lead from the front. Nobody is going to start it from the 


-Former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, 2013 

In his autobiography/New Age business manifesto Screw It, Let's Do It, Richard 
Branson, the flamboyant founder of Virgin Group, shared the inside story of what 
he describes as his "Road to Damascus" conversion to the fight against climate 
change. It was 2006 and Al Gore, on tour with An Inconvenient Truth, came to the 
billionaire' s home to impress upon him the dangers of global warming, and to try 


to convince Branson to use Virgin Airlines as a catalyst for change." 

"It was quite an experience having a brilliant communicator like Al Gore give 
me a personal PowerPoint presentation," Branson writes of the meeting. "Not only 
was it one of the best presentations I have ever seen in my life, but it was 
profoundly disturbing to become aware that we are potentially facing the end of 
the world as we know it. . . . As I sat there and listened to Gore, I saw that we were 


looking at Armageddon." 

As he tells it, Branson's first move following his terrifying epiphany was to 
summon Will Whitehorn, then Virgin Group's corporate and brand development 
director. Together "we carefully discussed these issues and took the decision to 
change the way Virgin operates on a corporate and global level. We called this 
new Virgin approach to business Gaia Capitalism in honor of James Lovelock and 


his revolutionary scientific view" (a reference to Lovelock's theory that the earth 
is "one single enormous living organism and every single part of the ecosystem 
reacted with every other part"). Not only would Gaia Capitalism "help Virgin to 
make a real difference in the next decade and not be ashamed to make money at 
the same time," but Branson believed it held the potential to become "a new way 
of doing business on a global level."" 

Before the year was out, he was ready to make his grand entrance onto the green 
scene (and Branson knows how to make an entrance — by parachute, by hot air 
balloon, by Jet Ski, by kite-sail with a naked model clinging to his back . . .). At the 
2006 Clinton Global Initiative annual meeting in New York City — the highest 
power event on the philanthropic calendar — Branson pledged to spend roughly $3 
billion over the next decade to develop biofuels as an alternative to oil and gas, 
and on other technologies to battle climate change. The sum alone was staggering 
but the most elegant part was where the money would be coming from: Branson 
would divert the funds from profits generated by Virgin's fossil fuel-burning 
transportation lines. As Branson explained in an interview, "Any dividends or 
share sales or any money that we make from our airlines or trains will be ploughed 
back into tackling global warming, into investing in finding new, clean fuels and 
investing in trying to find fuels for jet engines so that we can hopefully reverse the 
inevitability of, you know, of destroying the world if we let it carry on the way it's 

. „6 


In short, Branson was volunteering to do precisely what our governments have 
been unwilling to legislate — require that the profits being earned from warming 
the planet be channeled into the costly transition away from these dangerous 
energy sources. The director of the Natural Resources Defense Council's Move 
America Beyond Oil campaign said of Virgin's renewable energy initiatives, "This 
is exactly what the whole industry should be looking at." Furthermore, Branson 
pledged that if its transportation divisions weren't profitable enough to meet the 
$3 billion target, "the money will come out of our existing businesses." He would 
do "whatever it takes" to fulfill the commitment because "what is the point of 


holding back when there will be no businesses" if we fail to act? 

Bill Clinton was dazzled, calling the $3 billion pledge "groundbreaking, not only 
because of the price tag — which is phenomenal — but also because of the statement 
that he is making." The New Yorker described it as "by far the biggest such 


commitment that has yet been made to fight global warming." 

But Branson wasn't finished. A year later he was back in the news with the 
"Virgin Earth Challenge" — a $25 million prize that would go to the first inventor 


to figure out how to sequester one billion tons of carbon a year from the air 
"without countervailing harmful effects." He described it as "the largest ever 
science and technology prize to be offered in history." This, Branson pronounced, 
was "the best way to find a solution to the problem of climate change," elaborating 
in an official statement that, "If the greatest minds in the world today compete, as 
I'm sure they will, for The Virgin Earth Challenge, I believe that a solution to the 

CO2 problem could hopefully be found — a solution that could save our planet — 


not only for our children but for all the children yet to come." 

And the best part, he said, is that if these competing geniuses crack the carbon 
code, the " 'doom and gloom' scenario vanishes. We can carry on living our lives 
in a pretty normal way — we can drive our cars, we can fly our planes, life can carry 
on as normal." 12 Indeed the idea that we can solve the climate crisis without having 
to change our lifestyles in any way — certainly not by taking fewer Virgin flights — 
seemed to be the underlying assumption of all of Branson's various climate 
initiatives. With the $3 billion pledge, he would try to invent a low carbon fuel that 
could keep his airlines running at full capacity. If that failed, and carbon still 
needed to be burned to keep the planes in the air, then the prize would surely help 
invent a way to suck the heat-trapping gas out of the sky before it's too late. To 
cover one more base, in 2009 Branson launched the Carbon War Room, an industry 
group looking for ways that different sectors could lower their emissions 
voluntarily, and save money in the process. "Carbon is the enemy," Branson 
declared. "Let's attack it in any possible way we can, or many people will die just 
like in any war." 11 

Billionaires and Broken Dreams 

For many mainstream greens, Branson seemed to be a dream come true: a flashy, 
media-darling billionaire out to show the world that fossil-fuel- 
intensive companies can lead the way to a green future using profit as the most 
potent tool — and proving just how serious he was by putting striking amounts of 
his own cash on the line. As Branson explained to Time, "If the government can't 

deliver, it's up to industries to [do it] themselves. We have to make it a win-win 


for all concerned." This is what groups like the Environmental Defense Fund had 
been saying since the 1980s in explaining why they partnered with big polluters, 
and what they had attempted to prove with the carbon market. But never before 
had there been a single figure willing to use his own multibillion- dollar empire as 


a test case. Branson's personal account of the impact of Gore's PowerPoint also 
seemed to confirm the notion, cherished in many green circles, that transforming 
the economy away from fossil fuels is not about confronting the rich and powerful 
but simply about reaching them with sufficiently persuasive facts and figures and 
appealing to their sense of humanity. 

There had been major green philanthropists before. Men like financier Jeremy 
Grantham, who underwrites a large portion of the U.S. and British green 
movement, as well as a lot of related academic research, with wealth from 
Grantham, Mayo, Van Otterloo & Co., the investment management firm he 
cofounded. But these funders tended to stay behind the scenes. And unlike 
Branson, Grantham has not attempted to turn his own financial firm into proof that 
the quest for short-term profits can be reconciled with his personal concerns about 
ecological collapse. On the contrary, Grantham is known for his bleak quarterly 
letters, in which he has mused on our economic model's collision course with the 
planet. "Capitalism, by ignoring the finite nature of resources and by neglecting 
the long-term well-being of the planet and its potentially crucial biodiversity, 
threatens our existence," Grantham wrote in 2012 — but that doesn't mean savvy 
investors can't get very rich on the way down, both from the final scramble for 


fossil fuels, and by setting themselves up as disaster capitalists. 

Take Warren Buffett, for instance. For a brief time, he too seemed to be 
auditioning for the role of Great Green Hope, stating, in 2007, that, "the odds are 
good that global warming is serious" and that even if there is a chance it won't be 
"you have to build the ark before the rains come. If you have to make a mistake, 
err on the side of the planet. Build a margin of safety to take care of the only planet 


we have." But it soon became clear that Buffett was not interested in applying 
this logic to his own corporate assets. On the contrary, Berkshire Hathaway has 
done its best in subsequent years to make sure those rains come with ferocity. 

Buffett owns several huge coal-burning utilities and holds large stakes in 
ExxonMobil and the tar sands giant Suncor. Most significantly, in 2009 Buffett 
announced that his company would spend $26 billion to buy what it didn't already 
own of the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad. Buffett called the deal — the 
largest in Berkshire Hathaway history — "a bet on the country." It was also a bet 
on coal: BNSF is one of the biggest coal haulers in the United States and one of 
the primary engines behind the drive to greatly expand coal exports to China. 

Investments like these push us further down the road toward catastrophic 
warming, of course — and Buffett is poised to be one of the biggest winners there 
too. That' s because he is a major player in the reinsurance business, the part of the 


insurance sector that stands to profit most from climate disruption. As Eli Lehrer, 
the insurance industry advocate who defected from the Heartland Institute after its 
controversial billboard campaign, explains, "A large reinsurer like Warren 
Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway might simultaneously underwrite the risk of an 
industrial accident in Japan, a flood in the U.K., a hurricane in Florida, and a 
cyclone in Australia. Since there's almost no chance that all of these events will 
happen at the same time, the reinsurer can profit from the premiums it earns on 
one type of coverage even when it pays out mammoth claims on another." Perhaps 
it's worth remembering that Noah's Ark was not built to hold everyone, but just 
the lucky few.~ 

The newest billionaire raising big hopes in the climate scene is Tom Steyer, a 
major donor to various climate and anti-tar sands campaigns, as well as to the 
Democratic Party. Steyer, who made his fortune with the fossil-fuel-heavy hedge 
fund Farallon Capital Management, has made some serious attempts to bring his 
business dealings in line with his climate concerns. But unlike Branson, Steyer has 
done this by leaving the business that he founded, precisely because, as The Globe 
and Mail reported, "it valued a company's bottom line, not its carbon footprint." 
He further explained, "I have a passion to push for what I believe is the right thing. 
And I couldn't do it in good conscience and hold down a job — and get paid very 
well for doing a job — where I wasn't directly doing the right thing." This stance 
is very different from Branson's, who is actively trying to prove that it is possible 
for a fossil-fuel-based company not just to do the right thing but to lead the 


transition to a clean economy. Nor is Branson in precisely the same category as 
Michael Bloomberg and Bill Gates, who have both used their philanthropy to 
aggressively shape the kinds of climate solutions on offer. Bloomberg, for 
instance, has been held up as a hero for his large donations to green groups like the 
Sierra Club and EDF, and for the supposedly enlightened climate policies he 


introduced while mayor of New York City. 

But while talking a good game about carbon bubbles and stranded assets (his 
company is set to introduce the "Bloomberg Carbon Risk Valuation Tool" to 
provide data and analysis to its clients about how fossil fuel stocks would be 
impacted by a range of climate actions), Bloomberg has made no discernible 
attempt to manage his own vast wealth in a manner that reflects these concerns. 
On the contrary, as previously mentioned, he helped set up Willett Advisors, a firm 
specializing in oil and gas assets, for both his personal and philanthropic holdings. 
Brad Briner, director of real assets for Willett, stated plainly in May 2013 that, 


"We are natural gas bulls. We think oil is well priced," citing new drilling 
investments on the horizon.^ 

It's not simply that Bloomberg is actively snapping up fossil fuel assets even as 
he funds reports warning that climate change makes for "risky business." It's that 
those gas assets may well have increased in value as a result of Bloomberg's 
environmental giving, what with EDF championing natural gas as a replacement 
for coal and the Sierra Club spending tens of millions of Bloomberg's dollars 
shutting down coal plants. Was funding the war on coal at least partially about 
boosting the share price of gas? Or was that just a bonus? Perhaps there is no 
connection between his philanthropic priorities and his decision to entrust so much 
of his fortune to the oil and gas sector. But these investment choices do raise 
uncomfortable questions about Bloomberg's status as a climate hero, as well as his 
2014 appointment as a United Nations special envoy for cities and climate change 
(questions Bloomberg has not answered despite repeated requests). At the very 
least, they demonstrate that seeing the risks climate change poses to financial 
markets in the long term may not be enough to curtail the temptation to profit from 


planet destabilization in the short-term. 

Bill Gates has a similar firewall between mouth and money. Though he professes 
great concern about climate change, the Gates Foundation had at least $1.2 billion 
invested in just two oil giants, BP and ExxonMobil, as of December 2013, and 


those are only the beginning of his fossil fuel holdings. 

Gates's approach to the climate crisis, meanwhile, shares a fair amount with 
Branson's. When Gates had his climate change epiphany, he too immediately 
raced to the prospect of a silver-bullet techno-fix in the future, without pausing to 
consider viable — if economically challenging — responses in the here and now. In 
TED Talks, op-eds, interviews, and in his much-discussed annual letters, Gates 
repeats his call for governments to massively increase spending on research and 
development with the goal of uncovering "energy miracles." By miracles, Gates 
means nuclear reactors that have yet to be invented (he is a major investor and 
chairman of nuclear start-up TerraPower); he means machines to suck carbon out 
of the atmosphere (he is also a primary investor in at least one such prototype); and 
he means direct climate manipulation (Gates has spent millions of his own money 
funding research into various schemes to block the sun, and his name is listed on 
several hurricane-suppression patents). At the same time, he has been dismissive 
of the potential of existing renewable technologies. "We focus too much on 
deployment of stuff that we have today," Gates claims, writing off energy solutions 


like rooftop solar as "cute" and "noneconomic" (despite the fact that these cute 


technologies are already providing 25 percent of Germany's electricity). 

The real difference between Gates and Branson is that Branson still has a hands- 
on leadership role at Virgin and Gates left the top job at Microsoft years ago. 
Which is why when Branson entered the climate fray, he was really in a category 
of his own — promising to turn a major multinational, one with fossil fuels at its 
center, into an engine for building the next economy. The only other figure who 
had raised similar hopes was the brash Texas oilman T. Boone Pickens. In 2008, 
he launched "The Pickens Plan," which, backed by a huge advertising budget in 
print and television, promised to end U.S. dependence on foreign oil by massively 
boosting wind and solar, and converting vehicles to natural gas. "I've been an oil 
man my whole life," Pickens said in his commercials, with his heavy Texas twang. 


"But this is one emergency we can't drill our way out of."" 

The kind of policies and subsidies Pickens was advocating were ones from 
which the billionaire's energy hedge fund, BP Capital, was poised to profit — but 
for the greens cheering him on, that wasn't the point. Carl Pope, then heading the 
Sierra Club, joined the billionaire on his private Gulfstream jet to help him sell the 
plan to reporters. "To put it plainly, T. Boone Pickens is out to save America," he 

Or not. Shortly after Pickens's announcement, the fracking frenzy took off, and 
suddenly powering the grid with unconventional natural gas looked a lot more 
appealing to BP Capital than relying on wind. Within a couple of years the Pickens 
Plan had radically changed. It now had almost nothing to do with renewable energy 
and everything to do with pushing for more gas extraction no matter the cost. 
"You're stuck with hydrocarbons — come on, get real," Pickens told a group of 
reporters in April 201 1, while questioning the seriousness of human-caused global 
warming to boot. By 2012, he was extolling the virtues of the tar sands and the 
Keystone XL pipeline. As David Friedman, then research director for the Clean 
Vehicles Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, put it: Pickens "kept 
saying that this wasn't about private interests, it was about the nation and the 
world. But to dump the part that actually had the greatest potential to cut global 
warming and pollution and help create new jobs in the U.S., in favor of the piece 


that really does most benefit his bottom line, was a disappointment." 

Which leaves us with Branson — his pledge, his prize, and his broader vision of 
voluntarily changing capitalism so that it is in keeping with the laws of "Gaia." 


Almost a decade after Branson's PowerPoint epiphany, it seems like a good time 
to check in on the "win-win" crusade. It's too much to expect Branson to have 
changed the way business is done in less than a decade, of course. But given the 
hype, it does seem fair to examine how his attempts to prove that industry can lead 
us away from climate catastrophe without heavy government intervention have 
progressed. Because given the dismal track record of his fellow green billionaires 
on that front, it may be fair to conclude that if Branson can't do it, no one can. 

The Pledge That Turned into a "Gesture" 

Let's start with Branson's "firm commitment" to spend $3 billion over a decade 
developing a miracle fuel. Despite press reports portraying the pledge as a gift, the 
original concept was more like straight-up vertical integration. And integration is 
Branson's hallmark: the first Virgin business was record sales, but Branson built 
his global brand by making sure that he not only owned the music stores, but the 
studio where the bands recorded, and the record label that represented them. Now 
he was applying the same logic to his airlines. Why pay Shell and Exxon to power 
Virgin planes and trains when Virgin could invent its own transport fuel? If it 
worked, the gambit would not only turn Branson into an environmental hero but 
also make him a whole lot richer. 

So the first tranche of money Branson diverted from his transportation divisions 
went to launch a new Virgin business, originally called Virgin Fuels and since 
replaced by a private equity firm called the Virgin Green Fund. In keeping with 
his pledge, Branson started off by investing in various agrofuel businesses, 
including making a very large bet of roughly $130 million on corn ethanol. And 
Virgin has attached its name to several biofuel pilot projects — one to derive jet 
fuel from eucalyptus trees, another from fermented gas waste — though it has not 
gone in as an investor. (Instead it mainly offers PR support, and a pledge to 
purchase the fuel if it becomes viable.) But by Branson's own admission, the 
miracle fuel he was looking for "hasn't been invented yet" and the biofuels sector 
has stalled, thanks in part to the influx of fracked oil and gas. In response to written 
interview questions, Branson conceded, "It's increasingly clear that this is a 
question of creating the market conditions that would allow a diverse portfolio of 
different renewable fuel producers, suppliers and customers to all work in the same 
way that conventional fuel supply chains work today. It's one of the issues that the 
Carbon War Room's renewable jet fuels operation is looking to solve."^ 


Perhaps this is why Branson's green investment initiative appears to have lost 
much of its early interest in alternative fuels. Today, the Virgin Green Fund 
continues to invest in one biofuel company, but the rest of its investments are a 
grab bag of vaguely green-hued projects, from water desalination to energy- 
efficient lighting, to an in-car monitoring system to help drivers conserve gas. Evan 
Lovell, a partner in the Virgin Green Fund, acknowledged in an interview that the 
search for a breakthrough fuel has given way to a "much more incremental" 


approach, one with fewer risks and more short-term return. 

Diversifying his holdings to get a piece of the green market is Branson's 
prerogative, of course. But hundreds of venture capitalists have made the same 
hedge, as have all the major investment banks. It hardly would seem to merit the 
fanfare inspired by Branson's original announcement. Especially because the 
investments themselves have been so unremarkable. Jigar Shah, a Branson 
supporter who ran the Carbon War Room, is frank about this: "I don't think that 
he's made a lot of great investments in the climate change space. But the fact that 


he's passionate about it is a good thing." 

Then there is the small matter of dollar amounts. When Branson made his 
pledge, he said that he would "invest 100 percent of all future proceeds of the 
Virgin Group from our transportation businesses into tackling global warming for 


an estimated value of $3 billion over the next 10 years." That was 2006. If 
Branson is to make it to $3 billion by 2016, by this point, at least $2 billion should 
have been spent. He' s not even close. 

In 2010 — four years into the pledge — Branson told The Economist that he had 
so far only invested "two or three hundred million dollars in clean energy," 
blaming poor profits in the airline sector. In February 2014, he told The 
Observer that "we have invested hundreds of millions in clean technology 
projects." Not much progress, in other words. And it may be even less: according 
to Virgin Green Fund partner Lovell, Virgin has still only contributed around $100 
million (outsider investors had matched that), on top of the original ethanol 
investment, which as of 2013, brings the total Branson investment to something 
around $230 million. (Lovell confirmed that "we are the primary vehicle" for 
Branson's promise.) Add to that an undisclosed, but likely modest personal 
investment in an algae company called Solazyme, and we are still looking at well 
under $300 million dollars, seven years into the ten-year pledge that is supposed 
to reach $3 billion. As of this writing, no major new investments had been 

, 30 


Branson refused to answer direct questions about how much he had spent, 
writing that "it's very hard to quantify the total amount we've invested in relation 
to climate change across the Group," and his labyrinthine holdings make it hard to 
come up with independent estimates. "I'm not very good with figures," the 
billionaire has said about another murky corner of Virgin's empire, adding "I failed 
my elementary maths." Part of the confusion stems from the fact that it's unclear 
what should be counted toward the original $3 billion pledge. It began as a targeted 
quest for a miracle green fuel, then expanded to become a search for clean 
technologies generally, then, apparently, eco- anything. Branson now says that he 
is counting "investments made by individual Virgin companies in sustainability 
measures, such as more efficient fleets" of planes. More recently, Branson's fight 
against global warming has centered around various attempts to "green" his two 
private islands in the Caribbean, one of which serves as his deluxe family 
compound and the other a $60,000 a night hotel. Branson claims the model he is 
setting will help nearby Caribbean nations to switch to renewable power 
themselves. Perhaps it will, but it's all a long way from the pledge to transform 


capitalism back in 2006.^ 

The Virgin boss now plays down his original commitment, no longer referring 
to it as a "pledge" but rather a "gesture." In 2009, he told Wired magazine, "In a 
sense, whether it's $2 billion, $3 billion or $4 billion is not particularly relevant." 
Branson told me that when the deadline rolls around, "I suspect it will be less than 
$1 billion right now." That too may prove an exaggeration: if the publicly available 
information is correct, he would have to more than triple the green energy 
investments he has made so far. When asked, Branson blamed the shortfall on 
everything from high oil prices to the global financial crisis: "The world was quite 
different back in 2006.. . . In the last eight years our airlines have lost hundreds of 


millions of dollars." 

Given these various explanations for falling short, it is worth taking a look at 
some of the things for which Richard Branson and Virgin did manage to find 
money in this key period. Like, for instance, a massive global push to put more 
carbon-spewing planes in the skies adorned with stylized "V"s on their tails. 

When Branson met with Al Gore he warned the former vice president that however 
alarmed he became about what he learned about climate change, he was about to 
launch a new air route to Dubai and wasn't about to change that. That wasn't the 
half of it. In 2007, just one year after seeing the climate light with Gore and 


deciding, as he put it, that "my new goal in life is to work at reducing carbon 
emissions," Branson launched his most ambitious venture in years: Virgin 
America, a brand-new airline competing in the U.S. domestic market. Even by the 
standards of a new venture, Virgin America's growth rates in its first five years 
have been startling: from forty flights a day to five destinations in its first year, it 
reached 177 flights a day to twenty-three destinations in 2013. And the airline has 
plans to add forty more planes to its fleet by the middle of the next decade. In 
2010, The Globe and Mail reported that Virgin America was heading for "the most 
aggressive expansion of any North American airline in an era when most domestic 


carriers have been retrenching."^ 
Branson's capacity to expand so quickly has been boosted by rock-bottom seat 


sales, including offering tickets for just $60. With prices like that, Branson was 
not just poaching passengers from United and American, he was getting more 
people up in the air. The new airline, however, has been a hugely costly endeavor, 
generating hundreds of millions in losses. Bad news for the Green Fund, which 
needed Virgin's transportation businesses to do well in order to get topped up. 

Branson hasn't only been expanding his transportation businesses in the 
Americas. The number of people flying on various Virgin-branded Australian 
airlines increased by 27 percent in the five years following his climate pledge, from 
fifteen million passengers in 2007 to nineteen million in 2012. And in 2009, he 
launched a whole new long-haul airline, V Australia. Then, in April 2013, Branson 
unveiled yet another ambitious new venture: Little Red, a domestic airline for the 
U.K., starting with twenty-six flights a day. In true Branson style, when he 
launched the new airline in Edinburgh, he dressed in a kilt and flashed his 
underwear to reporters, which he had emblazoned with the words "stiff 
competition." But as with Virgin America, this was not just about competing with 
rivals for existing fliers: Virgin was so keen on expanding the number of people 
who could use the most carbon-intensive form of transportation that it offered a 
celebratory seat sale for some flights that charged customers no fares at all, only 
taxes — which came to about half the price of a cab from central London to 


Heathrow during rush hour.^ 

So this is what Branson has done on his climate change Road to Damascus: he 
went on an airplane-procurement spree. When Virgin's various expansions are 
tallied up, around 160 hardworking planes have been added to its global fleet since 
Branson's epiphany with Al Gore — quite possibly more than that. And the 
atmospheric consequences are entirely predictable. In the years after his climate 
pledge, Virgin airlines' greenhouse gas emissions soared by approximately 40 


percent. Virgin Australia's emissions jumped by 81 percent between 2006-2007 
and 2012-2013, while Virgin America's emissions shot up by 177 percent between 
2008 and 2012. (The only bright spot in Branson's emissions record was a dip at 
Virgin Atlantic between 2007 and 2010 — but that likely was less the result of 
visionary climate policy than the global economic downturn and the massive 
volcanic eruption in Iceland, which hit airlines indiscriminately.) 

Much of the sharp overall rise in Virgin's emissions was due to the airlines' 
rapid growth rate — but that wasn't the only factor. A study by the International 
Council on Clean Transportation on the relative fuel efficiency of fifteen U.S. 
domestic airlines in 2010 found that Virgin America clocked in at ninth 


placed This is quite a feat considering that, unlike its much older competitors, the 
brand-new airline could have built the best fuel efficiency practices into its 
operations from day one. Clearly Virgin chose not to. 

And it's not just airplanes. While he has been publicly waging his carbon war, 
Branson unveiled Virgin Racing to compete in Formula One (he claimed he had 
entered the sport only because he saw opportunities to make it greener but quickly 
lost interest). He also invested heavily in Virgin Galactic, his own personal dream 
of launching the first commercial flights into space, for a mere $250,000 per 
passenger. Not only is leisure space travel a pointless waste of (planet-warming) 
energy, it is also yet another money pit: according to Fortune, by early 2013 
Branson had spent "more than $200 million" on the vanity project, with much more 
in the works. That would be more than he appears to have spent on the search for 
a green fuel to power his planes.^ 

When asked about the status of his $3 billion climate pledge, Branson tends to 


plead poor, pointing to the losses posted by his transportation businesses. But 
given the manic level of growth in these sectors, it's an excuse that rings hollow. 
Not only have his trains been doing quite well, but given the flurry of new routes 
and new airlines, there was clearly no shortage of surplus money to spend. It's just 
that the Virgin Group decided to follow the basic imperative of capital: grow or 

It's also worth remembering that Branson was very clear when he announced 
the pledge that if his transportation divisions were not profitable enough to meet 
the target, he would divert funds from other parts of the Virgin empire. And here 
we run into another kind of problem: Branson's corporate modus operandi is 
somewhat nontraditional. He tends to pull in relatively modest profits (or even 
losses) while spending a great deal of money (his own, his partners', and 
taxpayers') building up flashy extensions of the Virgin brand. Then, when a new 


company is established, he sells all or part of his stake for a hefty sum, and a 
lucrative brand licensing deal. This money isn't posted as profits from those 
businesses, but it helps explain how Branson's net worth rose from an estimated 
$2.8 billion in 2006, the year he met with Gore, to an estimated $5.1 billion in 
2014. Musing on his passion for environmentalism to John Vidal mThe Observer, 
Branson said, "I find it interests me a lot more than making a few more bucks; it's 


much more satisfactory." And yet a few more bucks he has certainly made. 

Meanwhile, with the ten-year deadline fast approaching, it seems we are no 
closer to a miracle fuel to power Branson's planes, which are burning significantly 
more carbon than when the pledge period began. But fear not, because Branson 


has what he describes as his "fallback insurance policy." So how is that going? 

The Incredible Disappearing Earth Challenge 

After the original hoopla over Branson's $25 million Virgin Earth Challenge (or 
Earth Prize, as it is more frequently called), the initiative seemed to go dormant 
for a while. When journalists remembered to ask the Virgin chief about the search 
for a miracle technology to suck large amounts of carbon from the air, he seemed 
to subtly lower expectations, much as he has done with green fuels. And he had 
always cautioned that there was a chance that no one would win the prize. In 
November 2010, Branson revealed that Virgin had received something on the order 
of 2,500 entries. Nick Fox, Branson's spokesperson, explained that many ideas had 
to be ruled out because they were too risky and seemingly safer ones were not 
"developed enough to be commercialized right now." In Branson's words, there 


was no "slam dunk winner yet." 

Fox also mentioned that far more than $25 million was needed to determine 
some ideas' large-scale viability, something more on the order of $2.5 billion.^ 

Branson claims he hasn't completely given up on awarding the prize at some 
future point, saying, "We hope it's only a matter of time before there's a winner." 
He has, however, changed his role from straight-up patron to something more akin 
to a celebrity judge on a reality TV show, giving his blessing to the most promising 
ideas and helping them land high-level advice, investment, and other opportunities 


flowing from their association with the Virgin brand. 

This new incarnation of the Earth Challenge was unveiled (to significantly less 
fanfare than the first time around) in November 2011, at an energy conference in 
Calgary, Alberta. Appearing by video link, Branson announced the eleven most 


promising entries. Four were machines that directly sucked carbon out of the air 
(though none at anywhere near the scale needed); three were companies using the 
biochar process, which turns carbon-sequestering plant matter or manure into 
charcoal and then buries it in the soil and is controversial on a mass scale; and 
among the miscellaneous ideas was a surprisingly low-tech one involving 


revamping livestock grazing to boost the carbon-sequestering potential of soil. 

According to Branson, none of these finalists was ready yet to win the $25 
million prize but they were being showcased like beauty queens at the energy 
conference so that "the best engineers, investors, opinion formers and policy 
makers [would] work together on this challenge. Only then will the potential be 


realised. I see Calgary as a great city to start in." 

It was certainly a revealing choice. Calgary is the economic heart of Canada's 
tar sands boom. Oil from those dirty deposits has made the city one of the richest 
metropolises in the world, but its ongoing prosperity is entirely contingent on 
continuing to find customers for its product. And that depends very much on 
getting controversial pipelines like Keystone XL constructed through increasingly 
hostile territory, as well as on dissuading foreign governments from passing laws 
that would penalize Alberta's particularly high-carbon fuel. 

Enter Alan Knight, Richard Branson's sustainability advisor and the man he put 
in charge of the Earth Challenge. Knight took great pride in being Branson's go- 
to green guy, but their relationship was far from exclusive. Shell and Statoil (two 
of the biggest players in the tar sands) were among the other clients in Knight's 
consultancy. So too was, in his words, "Calgary City and the Alberta oil sands 
industry," specifically the Oil Sands Leadership Initiative (OSLI), an industry 
trade group comprised of ConocoPhillips, Nexen, Shell, Statoil, Suncor Energy, 
and Total. Knight boasted of being given "private access to their meetings," and 
explained that he advised his clients in the Alberta oil patch on how to allay 
mounting concerns about the enormous ecological costs of an extraction process 


that is three to four times more greenhouse gas intensive than conventional crude. 

His suggestion? Adopt a "narrative" about how their "awesome" technology can 
be used not just to extract dirty oil but to solve the environmental problems of 
tomorrow. And, he says, the choice of Calgary to host the next phase of Branson's 
Earth Challenge was "no coincidence"; indeed it appeared to be a way for him to 
serve the interests of some of his biggest clients all at once — the tar sands giants 
as well as Richard Branson. In an interview, Knight explained that "you've got a 
lot of very good engineers and you've got a lot of very highly financed companies 


who should be looking at this technology." 


But what exactly would they be looking at this technology to do? Not simply to 
suck out the carbon that they are putting into the air, but also, it turns out, to add 
even more carbon. Because in Calgary, the Virgin Earth Challenge was 
"reeingineered," to use Knight's word. While previously the goal had been to find 
technology capable of removing large amounts of carbon and safely storing it, 
Knight started referring to the prize as "an initiative to develop technology to 


recycle CO2 direct from the air into commercially viable products." 

It made a certain amount of sense: removing carbon out of the air has long been 
technically possible. The problems have always been finding a means of removal 
that was not prohibitively costly, as well as storage and scale. In a market economy 
that means finding customers interested in buying a whole lot of captured carbon. 
Which is where the decision to pitch the eleven most promising entries in Calgary 
started to gel. Since the mid-2000s, the oil industry has been increasing its use of 
a method known as Enhanced Oil Recovery (EOR) — a set of techniques that 
mostly use high-pressure gas or steam injections to squeeze more oil out of existing 
fields. Most commonly, wells are injected with CO2 and research shows that this 
use of CO2COUW cause the U.S. proven oil reserves to double or even, with "next- 
generation" technologies, quadruple. But there is a problem (other than the obvious 
planet-cooking one): according to Tracy Evans, former president of the Texas oil 
and gas company Denbury Resources, "The single largest deterrent to expanding 
production from EOR today is the lack of large volumes of reliable and affordable 
CO2." With this in mind, several of Branson's group of eleven finalists have 
pitched themselves as the start-ups best positioned to supply the oil industry with 
the steady stream of carbon dioxide it needs to keep the oil flowing. Ned David, 
president of Kilimanjaro Energy, one of Branson's finalists, claimed that machines 
like his have the potential to release huge volumes of oil once assumed untappable, 
similar to what fracking did for natural gas. It could be, he said, "a money gusher." 
He toldFortune, "The prize is nearly 100 billion barrels of U.S. oil if you can 
economically capture CO2 from air. That's $10 trillion of oil." 

David Keith, who has been studying geoengineering for twenty-five years, and 
who is the inventor of another one of the carbon-capture machines to make 
Branson's list, was slightly more circumspect. He explained that if carbon that was 
removed from the air were used to extract oil, "you're making hydrocarbon fuel 
with a very low life-cycle [of] carbon emissions." Maybe not so low, because 
according to a study from the U.S. Department of Energy's National Energy 
Technology Laboratory, EOR techniques are estimated to be almost three times as 
greenhouse- gas intensive as conventional extraction. And the oil is still going to 


be burned, thereby contributing to climate change. While more research is needed 
on the overallcarbon footprint of EOR, one striking modeling study examined a 
similar proposal that would use CO2 captured not from the air but directly from 
coal plants. It found that the emissions benefit of sequestering CO2 would be more 
than canceled out by all that extra oil: on a system-wide basis, the process could 


still end up releasing about four times as much CO2 as it would save. 

Moreover, much of this is oil that is currently considered unrecoverable — i.e., 
not even counted in current proven reserves, which as we know already represents 
five times more than we can safely burn. Any technology that can quadruple 
proven reserves in the U.S. alone is a climate menace, not a climate solution. As 
David Hawkins of the Natural Resources Defense Council puts it, air capture has 

"morphed very rapidly from a technology whose purpose is to remove CO2 to a 


technology whose purpose is to produce CO2." And Richard Branson has gone 
from promising to help get us off oil to championing technologies aimed at 
extracting and burning much more of it. Some prize. 

A Regulatory Avoidance Strategy? 

There was something else worth noting about Branson's decision to allow his Earth 
Challenge to cobrand with the Alberta oil sector. The Calgary event took place at 
a moment when the San Francisco-based ForestEthics had been upping the 
pressure on large corporations to boycott oil derived from the Alberta tar sands 
because of its high-carbon footprint. A fierce debate was also unfolding over 
whether new European fuel standards would effectively ban the sale of tar sands 
oil in Europe. And as early as 2008, the NRDC had sent open letters to fifteen U.S. 
and Canadian airlines asking them "to adopt their own corporate 'Low Carbon 
Fuel Standard' and to publicly oppose the expansion" of fuel from the tar sands 
and other unconventional sources, and to avoid these fuels in their own fleets. The 

group made a special appeal to Branson, citing his leadership in "combating global 


warming and developing alternative fuels." 

It seemed like a fair enough demand: the Virgin chief had enjoyed enormous 
publicity for his very public climate- change promises. None of them had yielded 
much, but surely, while he was waiting for an algae-based jet fuel to materialize 
or for someone to win the Earth Prize, Branson could make the relatively minor 
concession of refusing to power his rapidly expanding fleet of airplanes with one 
of the most carbon-intensive fuels on the market. 


Branson did not make that commitment. Alan Knight publicly stated, "I do not 
believe supporting a boycott is fair" and claimed that it was "impossible for an 
airline to boycott fuel made from oil sands" — a position contradicted by many 
experts. But Branson went further than refusing to participate in the boycott. By 
bringing the Earth Challenge to Calgary, Branson in effect did for the tar sands 
what his grand (but largely ephemeral) climate gestures have been doing for Virgin 
all these years: dangled the prospect of a miracle technological fix for carbon 
pollution just over the horizon in order to buy time to continue escalating 
emissions, free of meddlesome regulation. Indeed it can be argued — and some 
do — that Branson's planet-savior persona is an elaborate attempt to avoid the kind 
of tough regulatory action that was on the horizon in the U.K. and Europe precisely 
when he had his high-profile green conversion. 

After all, 2006 was a pivotal year for the climate change debate. Public concern 
was rising dramatically, particularly in the U.K. where the movement's radical, 
grassroots flank was dominated by young activists who were determined to stop 
the expansion of the fossil fuel economy in its tracks. Much as they oppose 
fracking today, these activists used daring direct action to oppose new airports, as 
well as the highly controversial proposed new runway at Heathrow, which the 
airport claims would increase its number of flights by more than 50 percent. 

At the same time, the U.K. government was considering a broad climate change 
bill that would have impacted the airline sector, and Gordon Brown, Britain's 
chancellor at the time, had attempted to discourage flying with a marginal increase 
of the air passenger duty. In addition, the EU was entertaining a proposal to lift the 
airline industry's exemption from paying a Value Added Tax and introduce an 
additional tax on aviation fuel. All these measures taken together posed a 


significant threat to the profit margins of Branson's chosen industry. 

Branson often talks a good game about supporting government regulation 
(saying he favors a global carbon tax, for instance), but he consistently opposes 
serious climate regulations when they are actually on the table. He has, for 
instance, been a hyperbolic, even bullying advocate of British airport expansion, 
including that new runway at Heathrow. He is so hungry for the expansion, in fact, 
that he has claimed, at various points, that its absence "will turn us into a third 
world country," that "global corporations will turn their back on London in favour 
of better connected cities," and that "Heathrow will become a symbol of British 


decline.") This wasn't the only time Branson's claims to be committed to 
waging war on carbon came into conflict with his hard-nosed business instincts. 


He came out against the proposed climate tax in Australia and blasted a plan for a 


global tax on airlines, claiming it "would tax the industry out of existence." 

It's this pattern that convinced Mike Childs of Friends of the Earth U.K. that 
Branson's reinvention as a guilt-ridden planet wrecker volunteering to use his 
carbon profits to solve the climate crisis was little more than a cynical ploy. "It 
comes across as a charitable act," Childs warned of the $3 billion pledge, "but I 
think he is also trying to take some of the heat out of aviation as a political issue. 
If you are running a transport company, you must have realized by now that climate 
change is going to be a massive issue for you." 

Was he right? Well, one immediate impact of Branson's pledge was that, all of 
a sudden, you could feel good about flying again — after all, the profits from that 
ticket to Barbados were going into Branson's grand plan to discover a miracle 
green fuel. It was an even more effective conscience cleaner than carbon offsets 
(though Virgin sold those, too). As for punitive regulations and taxes, who would 
want to get in the way of an airline whose proceeds were going to such a good 
cause? And this was always Branson's argument: let him grow, unencumbered by 
regulation, and he will use that growth to finance our collective green transition. 
"If you hold industry back, we will not, as a nation, have the resources to come up 
with the new clean-energy solutions we need," Branson argued. "Business is the 
key to solving the financial and environmental crisis." 

So the skeptics might be right: Branson's various climate adventures may indeed 
prove to have all been a spectacle, a Virgin production, with everyone's favorite 
bearded billionaire playing the part of planetary savior to build his brand, land on 
late night TV, fend off regulators, and feel good about doing bad. It is certainly 
noteworthy that the show has been significantly less voluble ever since the 
Conservative-led government of David Cameron came to power in the U.K. and 
made it clear that Branson and his ilk faced no serious threat of top-down climate 
regulations. But even if the constantly moving goalposts in Branson's climate 
initiatives merit that kind of cynicism, there is also a more charitable interpretation 
of what has gone wrong. This interpretation would grant Branson his obvious love 
of nature (whether it's watching the tropical birds on his private island or 
ballooning over the Himalayas). And it would credit him with genuinely trying to 
figure out ways to reconcile running carbon-intensive businesses with a profound 
personal desire to help slow species extinction and avert climate chaos. It would 
acknowledge, too, that between the pledge, the prize, and the Carbon War Room, 
Branson has thought up some rather creative mechanisms to try to channel profits 
generated from warming the planet into projects that could help keep it cool. 


But if we do grant Branson these good intentions, then the fact that all of these 
projects have failed to yield results is all the more relevant. Branson set out to 
harness the profit motive to solve the climate crisis — but the temptation to profit 
from practices worsening the crisis proved too great to resist. Again and again, the 
demands of building a successful empire trumped the climate imperative — 
whether that meant lobbying against needed regulation, or putting more planes in 
the air, or pitching oil companies on using his pet miracle technologies to extract 
more oil. The idea that capitalism and only capitalism can save the world from a 
crisis created by capitalism is no longer an abstract theory; it's a hypothesis that 
has been tested and retested in the real world. We are now able to set theory aside 
and take a hard look at the results: at the celebrities and media conglomerates that 
were supposed to model chic green lifestyles who have long since moved on to the 
next fad; at the green products that were shunted to the back of the supermarket 
shelves at the first signs of recession; at the venture capitalists who were supposed 
to bankroll a parade of innovation but have come up far short; at the fraud-infested, 
boom-and-bust carbon market that has failed miserably to lower emissions; at the 
natural gas sector that was supposed to be our bridge to renewables but ended up 
devouring much of their market instead. And most of all, at the parade of 
billionaires who were going to invent a new form of enlightened capitalism but 
decided that, on second thought, the old one was just too profitable to surrender. 

We've tried it Branson's way. (And Buffett's, Bloomberg's, Gates's, and 
Pickens's way.) The soaring emissions speak for themselves. There will, no doubt, 
be more billionaire saviors who make splashy entrances, with more schemes to 
rebrand capitalism. The trouble is, we simply don't have another decade to lose 
pinning our hopes on these sideshows. There is plenty of room to make a profit in 
a zero-carbon economy; but the profit motive is not going to be the midwife for 
that great transformation. 

This is important because Branson was onto something with his pledge. It makes 
perfect sense to make the profits and proceeds from the businesses that are most 
responsible for exacerbating the climate crisis help pay for the transition to a safer, 
greener future. Branson's original idea — to spend 100 percent of the proceeds from 
his trains and airlines on figuring out a way to get off fossil fuels — was, at least in 
theory, exactly the kind of thing that needs to take place on a grand scale. The 
problem is that under current business models, once the shareholders have taken a 
slice, once the executives have given themselves yet another raise, once Richard 
Branson has launched yet another world- domination project and purchased 
anotherprivate island, there doesn't seem to be much left over to fulfill the promise. 


Similarly, Alan Knight was onto something when he told his tar sands clients 
that they should use their technological prowess to invent the low-carbon and 
renewable energy sources of the future. As he said, "The potential narrative is 
perfect." The hitch, of course, is that, so long as this vision is left to the 
enlightened self-interest of oil and airline executives, it will remain just that: a 
narrative — or rather, a fairy tale. Meanwhile, the industry will use its technology 
and resources to develop ever more ingenious and profitable new ways to extract 
fossil fuels from the deepest recesses of the earth, even as it fiercely defends its 
public subsidies and resists the kind of minor increases to its tax and royalty rates 
that would allow governments to fund green transitions without its help. 

In this regard, Virgin is particularly brazen. The National Union of Rail, 
Maritime and Transport Workers estimates that Virgin Trains has received more 
than £3 billion (the equivalent of $5 billion) in subsidies since British railways 
were privatized in the late 1990s — significantly more than Branson pledged to the 
green fund. As recently as 2010, Branson and the Virgin Group received £18 
million in dividends from Virgin Trains. Branson insists that the characterization 
of him as a freeloader is "garbage," pointing to sharp increases in the number of 
passengers on Virgin trains and writing, "far from receiving subsidies, we now pay 
more than £100m a year to the taxpayer." But paying taxes is part of doing 
business. So when Branson pays into the Green Fund, whose money is it really — 
his own or the taxpayers'? And if a substantial portion of it originally belonged to 
taxpayers, wouldn't it have been a better arrangement never to have sold off the 
rails in the first place?~ 

If that were the case, the British people — with the climate crisis in mind — might 
have long ago decided to reinvest rail profits back into improving their public 
transit system, rather than allowing trains to become outdated and fares to 
skyrocket while shareholders of private rail companies like Branson's pocketed 
hundreds of millions in returns from their taxpayer-subsidized operations. And 
rather than gambling on the invention of a miracle fuel, they might have decided 
to make it a top political priority to shift the entire system over to electric trains, 
with that power coming from renewable energy, rather than have the system 
partially powered by diesel, as it is now. No wonder 66 percent of British residents 


tell pollsters they support renationalizing the railway companies. 

Richard Branson got at least one thing right. He showed us the kind of bold 
model that has a chance of working in the tight time frame left: the profits from 
our dirtiest industries must be diverted into the grand and hopeful project of 
cleaning up their mess. But if there is one thing Branson has demonstrated, it is 


that it won't happen on a voluntary basis or on the honor system. It will have to be 
legislated — using the kinds of tough regulations, higher taxes, and steeper royalty 
rates these sectors have resisted all along. 

Of course there is still a chance that one of Branson's techno- schemes could pan 
out. He might yet stumble across a zero-carbon jet fuel, or a magic machine for 
safely and cheaply removing carbon from the skies. Time, however, is not on our 
side. David Keith, inventor of one of those carbon- sucking machines, in which Bill 
Gates is a key investor, estimates that the technology is still decades away from 
being taken to scale. "There's no way you can do a useful amount of carbon 
dioxide removal in less than a third of a century or maybe half a century," he 
says. As always with matters related to climate change, we have to keep one eye 
on the ticking clock — and what that clock tells us is that if we are to have a solid 
chance of avoiding catastrophic warming, we will need to be burning strictly 
minimal amounts of fossil fuels a half century from now. If we spend the precious 
years between now and then dramatically expanding our emissions (as Branson is 
doing with his airlines, and as Knight's clients are doing in the tar sands), then we 
are literally betting the habitability of the planet on the faint hope of a miracle cure. 

And yet Branson (a notorious risk addict with a penchant for crashlanding hot 
air balloons) is far from the only one willing to stake our collective future on this 
kind of high-stakes gamble. Indeed the reason his various far-fetched schemes 
have been taken as seriously as they have over the years is that he, alongside Bill 
Gates with his near mystical quest for energy"miracles," taps into what may be our 
culture's most intoxicating narrative: the belief that technology is going to save us 
from the effects of our actions. Post-market crash and amidst ever more sinister 
levels of inequality, most of us have come to realize that the oligarchs who were 
minted by the era of deregulation and mass privatization are not, in fact, going to 
use their vast wealth to save the world on our behalf. Yet our faith in techno 
wizardry persists, embedded inside the superhero narrative that at the very last 
minute our best and brightest are going to save us from disaster. 

This is the great promise of geoengineering and it remains our culture's most 
powerful form of magical thinking. 

~ The Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment has funded a broad range of large 
environmental groups, ranging from The Nature Conservancy to Greenpeace, the Environmental Defense 
Fund to . 


~ It should be noted that though Steyer has separated out his personal funds from Farallon, he remains a 
limited partner and has also promoted the use of natural gas, helping to fund the EDF research that went 
into its pro-fracking study and enthusiastically endorsing natural gas in The Wall Street Journal. 

1 Those policies have been criticized for favoring big developers over vulnerable communities and for using 
a green veneer to push through mega real estate development projects with dubious environmental benefits, 
as Hunter College urban affairs professor Tom Angotti and others have written. Communities heavily 
impacted by Hurricane Sandy, meanwhile, have claimed that Bloomberg's postdisaster rebuilding plans 
were made with only token input from them. 

~ Aided by investments like these, the ethanol boom was responsible for 20-40 percent of the spike in 
agricultural commodity prices in 2007-2009, according to a survey by the National Academy of Sciences. 

" Puerile humor of this sort is a recurring theme in Branson's PR machine (the company once painted 
"Mine's Bigger than Yours" on the side of a new Airbus A340-600; boasted of its business-class seats that 
"size does matter"; and even flew a blimp over London emblazoned with the slogan "BA [British Airways] 
Can't Get It Up!!"). 

~ To quote one scathing assessment of the project by sociologist Salvatore Babones, "If two words can 
capture the extraordinary redistribution of wealth from workers to the wealthy over the past forty years, the 
flagrant shamelessness of contemporary conspicuous consumption, the privatization of what used to be 
public privileges and the wanton destruction of our atmosphere that is rapidly leading toward the extinction 
of nearly all non-human life on earth, all covered in a hypocritical pretense of pious environmental 
virtue ... those two words are Virgin Galactic." 

~ Including sustainability consultant Brendan May, founder of the Robertsbridge Group. "Of course you 
can segregate fuel according to its source," May writes. "If there's a will, there's a way.... At present, 
there's just no will." 

~ In 2012, he went so far as to offer to invest roughly $8 billion in an expansion of Virgin Atlantic's 
operations at Heathrow if the government would approve the new runway — a prospect that once again 
raises questions about Branson's claims to be too broke to keep up with his $3 billion climate pledge. 

1 Branson is apparently no great fan of paying taxes generally, as his byzantine network of offshore holding 
companies in the Channel Islands and British Virgin Islands attests. Indeed he spent a night in jail and 
received a hefty fine after getting caught in an illegal cross-border tax avoidance scam when running his 
first company in 1971. "I was a criminal," Branson writes of his jailhouse revelation in his autobiography. 




The Solution to Pollution Is . . . Pollution? 

"Geoengineering holds forth the promise of addressing global warming 
concerns for just a few billion dollars a year." 

-Newt Gingrich, former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, 2008 1 

"Our science is a drop, our ignorance a sea." 

-William James, 1895 2 

It's March 201 1 and I have just arrived at a three-day retreat about geoengineering 
in the Buckinghamshire countryside, about an hour and a half northwest of 
London. The meeting has been convened by the Royal Society, Britain's legendary 
academy of science, which has counted among its fellows Isaac Newton, Charles 
Darwin, and Stephen Hawking. 

In recent years, the society has become the most prominent scientific 
organization to argue that, given the lack of progress on emission reduction, the 
time has come for governments to prepare a technological Plan B. In a report 
published in 2009, it called upon the British government to devote significant 
resources to researching which geoengineering methods might prove most 
effective. Two years later it declared that planetary- scale engineering interventions 
that would block a portion of the sun's rays "may be the only option for reducing 


global temperatures quickly in the event of a climate emergency." 

The retreat in Buckinghamshire has a relatively narrow focus: How should 
research into geoengineering, as well as eventual deployment, be governed? What 
rules should researchers follow? What bodies, if any, will regulate these 
experiments? National governments? The United Nations? What constitutes "good 
governance" of geoengineering? To answer these questions and others, the society 


has teamed up with two cosponsors for the retreat: the World Academy of Sciences 
based in Italy, which focuses on promoting scientific opportunities in the 
developing world, and the Environmental Defense Fund, which has described 


geoengineering as a "bridging tool" (much as it has described natural gas). That 
makes this conference both the most international gathering about geoengineering 
to date, and the first time a major green group has publicly offered its blessing to 
the exploration of radical interventions into the earth's climate system as a 
response to global warming. 

The venue for this futuristic discussion is an immaculately restored sixty-two- 
room redbrick Georgian mansion called Chicheley Hall, once a set in a BBC 
production of Pride and Prejudice, and the Royal Society's newly acquired retreat 
center. The effect is wildly anachronistic: the estate's sprawling bright green 
lawns, framed by elaborately sculpted hedges, seem to cry out for women in 
corseted silk gowns and parasols discussing their suitors — not disheveled scientists 
discussing a parasol for the planet. And yet geoengineering has always had a 
distinctly retro quality, not quite steampunk, but it definitely harkens back to more 
confident times, when taking control over the weather seemed like the next 
exciting frontier of scientific innovation — not a last-ditch attempt to save ourselves 
from incineration. After dinner, consumed under towering oil paintings of plump- 
faced men in silver wigs, the delegates are invited to the wood-paneled library. 
There, about thirty scientists, lawyers, environmentalists, and policy wonks gather 
for the opening "technical briefing" on the different geoengineering schemes under 
consideration. A Royal Society scientist takes us through a slide show that includes 
"fertilizing" oceans with iron to pull carbon out of the atmosphere; covering 
deserts with vast white sheets in order to reflect sunlight back to space; and 
building fleets of machines like the ones competing for Richard Branson's Earth 
Challenge that would suck carbon out of the air. 

The scientist explains that there are too many such schemes to evaluate in depth, 
and each presents its own particular governing challenge. So for the next three 
days, we will zero in on the geoengineering methods the scientists here consider 
most plausible and promising. These involve various means of injecting particles 
into the atmosphere in order to reflect more sunlight back to space, thereby 
reducing the amount of heat that reaches the earth. In geoengineering lingo, this is 
known as Solar Radiation Management (SRM) — since these methods would be 
attempting to literally "manage" the amount of sunlight that reaches earth. 

There are various possible sun-dimming approaches. The most gleefully sci-fi 
is space mirrors, which is quickly dismissed out of hand. Another is "cloud 


brightening": spraying seawater into the sky (whether from fleets of boats or from 
towers on shore) to create more cloud cover or to make clouds more reflective and 
longer lasting. The most frequently discussed option involves spraying sulfate 
aerosols into the stratosphere, whether via specially retrofitted airplanes or a very 
long hose suspended by helium balloons (some have even suggested using 
cannons). The choice to focus exclusively on SRM is somewhat arbitrary given 
that ocean fertilization experiments have been conducted on several occasions, 
including a heavily reported "rogue" test off the coast of British Columbia in 2012. 
But SRM is attracting the lion's share of serious scientific interest: sun blocking 
has been the subject of over one hundred peer-reviewed papers, and several high- 
level research teams are poised to run open-air field trials, which would test the 
mechanics of these schemes using ships, planes, and very long hoses. If rules and 
guidelines aren't developed soon (including, as some are suggesting, banning field 
tests outright), we could end up with a research Wild West. 5 

Spraying sulfate into the stratosphere is often referred to as "the Pinatubo 
Option," after the 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines. Most 
volcanic eruptions send ash and gases into the lower atmosphere, where sulfuric 
acid droplets are formed that simply fall down to earth. (That was the case, for 
instance, with the 2010 Icelandic volcano that grounded many European flights.) 
But certain, much rarer eruptions — Mount Pinatubo among them — send high 
volumes of sulfur dioxide all the way up to the stratosphere. 

When that happens, the sulfuric acid droplets don't fall back down: they remain 
in the stratosphere, and within weeks can circulate to surround the entire planet. 
The droplets act like tiny, light- scattering mirrors, preventing the full heat of the 
sun from reaching the planet's surface. When these larger volcanic eruptions occur 
in the tropics, the aerosols stay suspended in the stratosphere for roughly one to 
two years, and the global cooling effects can last even longer. 

That's what happened after Pinatubo. The year after the eruption, global 
temperatures dropped by half a degree Celsius, and as Oliver Morton noted 
in Nature, "Had there not been a simultaneous El Nino, 1992 would have been 0.7 
degrees cooler, worldwide, than 1991." That figure is notable because we have 
warmed the earth by roughly the same amount thus far with our greenhouse gas 
emissions. Which is why some scientists have become convinced that if they could 
just find a way to do artificially what those large eruptions do naturally, then they 
could force down the temperature of the earth to counteract global warming. 

The scientist leading the briefing starts with the pros of this approach. He 
observes that the technology to pull this off already exists, though it needs to be 


tested; it's relatively cheap; and, if it worked, the cooling effects would kick in 
pretty quickly. The cons are that, depending on which sun-blocking method is used 
and how intensively, a permanent haze could appear over the earth, potentially 


making clear blue skies a thing of the past. The haze could prevent astronomers 
from seeing the stars and planets clearly and weaker sunlight could reduce the 
capacity of solar power generators to produce energy (irony alert). 

But the biggest problem with the Pinatubo Option is that it does nothing to 
change the underlying cause of climate change, the buildup of heat-trapping gases, 
and instead treats only the most obvious symptom — warmer temperatures. That 
might help control something like glacial melt, but would do nothing about the 
increased atmospheric carbon that the ocean continues to soak up, causing rapid 
acidification that is already taking a heavy toll on hard-shelled marine life from 
coral to oysters, and may have cascading impacts through the entire aquatic food 
chain. On the other hand, we hear, there could be some advantages to allowing 
atmospheric carbon dioxide levels to increase while keeping temperatures 
artificially cool, since plants like carbon dioxide (so long as it's not accompanied 
by scorching heat and drought) and they might well do better in what would 
essentially become an artificial global greenhouse. 

Oh, and another con: once you start spraying material into the stratosphere to 
block the sun, it would basically be impossible to stop because if you did, all the 
warming that you had artificially suppressed by putting up that virtual sunshade 
would hit the planet's surface in one single tidal wave of heat, with no time for 
gradual adaptation. Think of the wicked witches of fairy tales, staying young by 
drinking ill-gotten magical elixirs, only to decay and wither all at once when the 
supply is abruptly cut off. One solution to this "termination problem," as our 
British guide politely describes it, would be to suck a whole lot of carbon out of 
the atmosphere while the shade was still up so that when the particles dissipate and 
the sun beams down full bore, there is less heat-trapping gas in the atmosphere to 
augment the warming. Which would be fine except for the fact that we don't 
actually know how to do that on anything close to the required scale (as Richard 
Branson has discovered). Listening to all this, a grim picture emerges. Nothing on 
earth would be outside the reach of humanity's fallible machines, or even fully 
outside at all. We would have a roof, not a sky — a milky, geoengineered ceiling 
gazing down on a dying, acidified sea. 

And it gets worse, because our guide has saved the biggest con for last. A slide 
comes up showing a map of the world, with regions color-coded based on 
projections showing how severely their rainfall will be affected by injecting sulfur 


dioxide into the stratosphere. Precipitation in Europe and North America appears 
minimally changed, but Africa's equatorial region is lit up red, an indication of 
serious drought. And though the borders are hazy, parts of Asia appear to be in 
trouble as well because the drop in land temperature caused by a weaker sun could 
also weaken the summer monsoons, the main source of rainfall in these regions. 

Up to this point, the audience has been quietly listening, but this news seems to 
wake up the room. One participant interrupts the presentation: "Let's put aside the 
science and talk about the ethics," he says, clearly upset. "I come from Africa and 
I don't like what I'm seeing with precipitation." Indeed, one of the society's own 
reports on geoengineering acknowledges that Solar Radiation Management "could 
conceivably lead to climate changes that are worse than the 'no SRM' option." 

The African delegate shakes his head. "I don't know how many of us will sleep 
well tonight." 

Warming Up to "Horrifying" 

Schemes for deliberately intervening in the climate system to counteract the effects 
of global warming have been around for half a century at least. In fact, when the 
President's Science Advisory Committee issued a report warning Lyndon B. 
Johnson about climate change in 1965, the authors made no mention of cutting 
emissions. The only potential solutions considered were technological schemes 


like modifying clouds and littering oceans with reflective particles. 

And well before it was seen as a potential weapon against global warming, 
weather modification was simply seen as a weapon. During the Cold War, U.S. 
physicists imagined weakening the nation's enemies by stealthily manipulating 
rainfall patterns, whether by causing droughts or by generating targeted storms that 
would turn a critical supply route into a flooded mess, as was attempted during the 
Vietnam War. 12 

So it's little wonder that mainstream climate scientists have, until quite recently, 
shied away from even discussing geoengineering. In addition to the Dr. 
Strangelove baggage, there was a widespread fear of creating a climate moral 
hazard. Just as bankers take greater risks when they know governments will bail 
them out, the fear was that the mere suggestion of an emergency techno-fix — 
however dubious and distant — would feed the dangerous but prevalent belief that 
we can keep ramping up our emissions for another couple of decades. 


More out of despair than conviction, the geoengineering taboo has been 
gradually eroding over the past decade. A significant turning point came in 2006 
when Paul Crutzen, who won the Nobel Prize in chemistry for his breakthrough 
research on the deterioration of the ozone layer, wrote an essay arguing that the 
time had come to consider injecting sulfur into the stratosphere as an emergency 
escape route from severe global warming. "If sizeable reductions in greenhouse 
gas emissions will not happen and temperatures rise rapidly, then climatic 
engineering ... is the only option available to rapidly reduce temperature rises and 
counteract other climatic effects," he wrote. 11 

Crutzen created some space for preliminary research to take place, but 
geoengineering' s real breakthrough came after the Copenhagen summit flopped in 
2009, the same year that climate legislation tanked in the U.S. Senate. Soaring 
levels of hope had been pinned on both processes and when neither panned out, 
would-be planet hackers came out of their labs, positioning even the most 
seemingly outlandish ideas as the only realistic options left — especially with a 
world economic crisis making costly energy transformations seem politically 
untenable. The Pinatubo Option has become a media favorite thanks in large part 
to the work of Nathan Myhrvold, the excitable former Microsoft chief technology 
officer who now runs Intellectual Ventures, a company that specializes in eclectic 
high-tech inventions and is often described as a vehicle for patent 


trolling. Myhrvold is a made-for-TV character — a child prodigy turned physicist 
turned tech star, as well as an avid dinosaur hunter and wildlife photographer. Not 
to mention a formally trained amateur cook who spent millions researching and 
co-writing a six- volume bible on molecular gastronomy. 

In 2009, Myhrvold and his team unveiled details for a contraption they called 
the "StratoShield," which would use helium balloons to suspend a sulfur dioxide- 
spraying tube thirty kilometers into the sky. And he wasted no time pitching it as 
a substitute for government action: just two days after the Copenhagen summit 
concluded, Myhrvold was on CNN boasting that his device — which he said could 
deliver a "Mount Pinatubo on demand" — had the power to "negate global warming 


as we have it today." 

Two months earlier, Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner's global 
bestseller SuperFreakonomics had come out, devoting an entire awestruck chapter 
to Myhrvold' s hose to the sky. And whereas most scientists engaged in this 
research are careful to present sun blocking as a worst-case scenario — a Plan B to 
be employed only if Plan A (emission cuts) proves insufficient — Levitt and 
Dubner declared that the Pinatubo Option was straight- up preferable to getting off 


fossil fuels. "For anyone who loves cheap and simple solutions, things don't get 


much better." Most of those calling for more geoengineering research do so with 
significantly less glee. In September 2010, the New America Foundation 
and Slate magazine held a one-day forum in Washington, D.C., titled 
"Geoengineering: The Horrifying Idea Whose Time Has Come?"~ That one 
sentence pretty much sums up the tone of grim resignation that has characterized 
the steady stream of conferences and government reports that have inched 
geoengineering into the political mainstream. 

This gathering at Chicheley Hall is another milestone in this gradual process of 
normalization. Rather than debate whether or not to engage in geoengineering 
research — as most previous gatherings have done — this conference seems to take 
some kind of geoengineering activity as a given (or else why would it need to be 
"governed"). Adding to the sense not just of inevitability but general banality, the 
organizers have even given this process a clunky acronym: SRMGI, the Solar 
Radiation Management Governance Initiative. 

Geoengineering debate generally takes place within a remarkably small and 
incestuous world, with the same group of scientists, inventors, and funders 
promoting each other's work and making the rounds to virtually every relevant 
discussion of the topic. (Science journalist Eli Kintisch, who wrote one of the first 
books on geoengineering, calls them the "Geoclique.") And many of the members 
of that clique are in attendance here. There is David Keith, the wiry, frenetic 
physicist, then at the University of Calgary (now at Harvard), whose academic 
work has a major focus on SRM, and whose carbon-sucking machine — blessed by 
both Richard Branson and Bill Gates — stands to make him rather rich should the 
idea of a techno fix for global warming take off. This kind of vested interest is a 
recurring theme: many of the most aggressive advocates of geoengineering 
research are associated with planet-hacking start-ups, or hold patents on various 
methods. This, says Colby College science historian James Fleming, gives them 
"skin in the game" since these scientists stand "to make an incredible amount of 
money if their technique goes forward." 

Here too is Ken Caldeira, a prominent atmospheric scientist from the Carnegie 
Institution for Science, and one of the first serious climate scientists to run 
computer models examining the impact of deliberately dimming the sun. In 
addition to his academic work, Caldeira has an ongoing relationship with Nathan 


Myhrvold' s Intellectual Ventures as a "Senior Inventor." Another player present 
is Phil Rasch, a climate scientist at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in 


Washington state, who has been preparing to launch perhaps the first cloud- 
brightening field experiment. 

Bill Gates isn't here, but he provided much of the cash for the gathering, 
allocated through a fund administered by Keith and Caldeira. Gates has given the 
scientists at least $4.6 million specifically for climate-related research that wasn't 
getting funding elsewhere. Most of it has gone to geoengineering themes, with 
Keith, Caldeira, and Rasch all receiving large shares. Gates is also an investor in 
Keith's carbon capture company, as well as in Intellectual Ventures, where his 
name appears on several geoengineering patents (alongside Caldeira' s), while 
Nathan Myhrvold serves as vice chairman at TerraPower, Gates's nuclear energy 
start-up. Branson's Carbon War Room has sent a delegate and is supporting this 

1 8 

work in various ways. If that all sounds confusing and uncomfortably clubby, 
especially for so global and high stakes a venture, well, that's the Geoclique for 
you. Because governing geoengineering, as opposed to just testing it, is the focus 
of this retreat, the usual club has been temporarily expanded to include several 
climate scientists from Africa and Asia, as well as legal ethicists, experts in 
international treaties and conventions, and staffers from several green NGOs, 
including Greenpeace and WWF-UK (Greenpeace does not support 
geoengineering, but WWF-UK has come out in cautious support of "research into 


geo-engineering approaches in order to find out what is possible"). 

The organizers have also invited a couple of outspoken critics. Alan Robock, a 
famously gruff white -bearded climatologist from Rutgers University, is here. 
When I last saw him in action, he was presenting a slide show titled "20 Reasons 
Why Geoengineering May Be a Bad Idea," ranging from "Whitening of the sky" 
(#7) to "Rapid warming if deployment stops" (#10). Most provocative is 
Australian climate expert Clive Hamilton, who has wondered aloud whether "the 
geoengineers [are] modern-day Phaetons, who dare to regulate the sun, and who 


must be struck down by Zeus before they destroy the earth?" 

In the end, the conference manages to agree on nothing of substance — not even 
the need for small-scale field trials to take place. But throwing this group of people 
together in a country mansion for three days does make for some interesting 
intellectual fireworks. 


What Could Possibly Go Wrong? 

After a night's sleep, the guests at Chicheley Hall are ready to dive into the debates. 
In a sleek slate-and-glass lecture hall located in the old coach house, the organizers 
separate the group into breakout sessions. Everyone receives a sheet of paper with 
a triangle on it, and on each point is a different word: "Promote," "Prohibit," 
"Regulate." The instructions say "Mark where you feel your current perspective 
best fits on the triangle." Do you want further research into sun-shielding banned? 
Aggressively promoted? Promoted with some measure of regulation? 

I spend the morning eavesdropping on the different breakouts and before long a 
pattern emerges. The scientists already engaged in geoengineering research tend 
to categorize their positions somewhere between "regulate" and "promote," while 
most everyone else leans toward "prohibit" and "regulate." Several of the 
participants express a desire to promote more research, but only to establish that 
geoengineering isn't a viable option that we can bank on to save the day. "We 
particularly need to know if it's not going to work," one environmentalist pleads 
to the scientists in his session. "Right now we're struggling in the dark." 

But in one breakout group, things have gone off the rails. A participant flatly 
refuses to place his views on the triangle and instead, helps himself to a large piece 
of poster paper. On it he writes three questions in blue marker: 

• Is the human that gave us the climate crisis capable of properly/safely regulating 


• In considering SRM regulation, are we not in danger of perpetuating the view that 

the earth can be manipulated in our interests? 

• Don't we have to engage with these questions before we place ourselves in the 


When the groups come back together to discuss their triangular mind maps, these 
questions are never acknowledged, let alone answered. They just hang on the wall 
of the lecture hall as a sort of silent rebuke. It's too bad, because the Royal Society, 
with its long and storied history of helping to both launch the Scientific Revolution 
and the age of fossil fuels, offers a unique vantage point from which to ponder 
these matters. 

The Royal Society was founded in 1660 as an homage to Francis Bacon. Not 
only is the organization's motto — Nullius in verba — "take nothing on authority" — 
inspired by Bacon but, somewhat bizarrely, much of the society's basic structure 
was modeled on the fictional scientific society portrayed in Bacon's proto-sci- 
fi/utopian novel New Atlantis, published in 1627. The institution was at the 


forefront of Britain's colonial project, sponsoring voyages by Captain James Cook 
(including the one in which he laid claim to New Zealand), and for over forty years 
the Royal Society was led by one of Cook's fellow explorers, the wealthy botanist 
Joseph Banks, described by a British colonial official as "the staunchest imperialist 


of the day." During his tenure, the society counted among its fellows James Watt, 
the steam engine pioneer, and his business partner, Matthew Boulton — the two 
men most responsible for launching the age of coal. 

As the questions hanging on the wall imply, these are the tools and the logic that 
created the crisis geoengineering is attempting to solve — not just the coal-burning 
factories and colonial steam ships, but Bacon's twisted vision of the Earth as a 
prone woman and Watt's triumphalism at having found her "weak side." Given 
this, does it really make sense to behave as if, with big enough brains and powerful 
enough computers, humans can master and control the climate crisis just as 
humans have been imagining they could master the natural world since the dawn 
of industrialization — digging, damming, drilling, dyking. Is it really as simple as 
adding a new tool to our nature-taming arsenal: dimming? 

This is the strange paradox of geoengineering. Yes, it is exponentially more 
ambitious and more dangerous than any engineering project humans have ever 
attempted before. But it is also very familiar, nearly a cliche, as if the past five 
hundred years of human history have been leading us, ineluctably, to precisely this 
place. Unlike cutting our emissions in line with the scientific consensus, 
succumbing to the logic of geoengineering does not require any change from us; it 
just requires that we keep doing what we have done for centuries, only much more 

Wandering the perfectly manicured gardens at Chicheley Hall — through the 
trees sculpted into lollipops, through the hedges chiseled into daggers — I realize 
that what scares me most is not the prospect of living on a "designer planet," to 
use a phrase I heard at an earlier geoengineering conference. My fear is that the 
real-world results will be nothing like this garden, or even like anything we saw in 
that technical briefing, but rather something far, far worse. If we respond to a 
global crisis caused by our pollution with more pollution — by trying to fix the crud 
in our lower atmosphere by pumping a different kind of crud into the 
stratosphere — then geoengineering might do something far more dangerous than 
tame the last vestiges of "wild" nature. It may cause the earth to go wild in ways 
we cannot imagine, making geoengineering not the final engineering frontier, 
another triumph to commemorate on the walls of the Royal Society, but the last 
tragic act in this centuries-long fairy tale of control. 


A great many of our most brilliant scientists have taken the lessons of past 
engineering failures to heart, including the failure of foresight represented by 
climate change itself, which is one of the primary reasons there is still so much 
resistance to geoengineering among biologists and climate scientists. To quote 
Sallie Chisholm, a world-renowned expert on marine microbes at MIT, 
"Proponents of research on geoengineering simply keep ignoring the fact that the 
biosphere is a player (not just a responder) in whatever we do, and its trajectory 
cannot be predicted. It is a living breathing collection of organisms (mostly 
microorganisms) that are evolving every second — a 'self-organizing, complex, 
adaptive system' (the strict term). These types of systems have emergent properties 
that simply cannot be predicted. We all know this! Yet proponents of 


geoengineering research leave that out of the discussion." 

Indeed in my time spent among the would-be geoengineers, I have been 
repeatedly struck by how the hard- won lessons about humility before nature that 
have reshaped modern science, particularly the fields of chaos and complexity 
theory, do not appear to have penetrated this particular bubble. On the contrary, 
the Geoclique is crammed with overconfident men prone to complimenting each 
other on their fearsome brainpower. At one end you have Bill Gates, the 
movement' s sugar daddy, who once remarked that it was difficult for him to decide 
which was more important, his work on computer software or inoculations, 
because they both rank "right up there with the printing press and fire." At the 
other end is Russ George, the U.S. entrepreneur who has been labeled a "rogue 
geoengineer" for dumping some one hundred tons of iron sulphate off the coast of 
British Columbia in 2012. "I am the champion of this on the planet," he declared 
after the experiment was exposed, the only one with the guts to "step forward to 
save the oceans." In the middle are scientists like David Keith, who often comes 
off as deeply conflicted about "opening up Pandora's Box" — but once said of the 
threat of weakened monsoons from Solar Radiation Management that 


"hydrological stresses" can be managed "a little bit by irrigation." 

The ancients called this hubris; the great American philosopher, farmer and poet 
Wendell Berry calls it "arrogant ignorance," adding, "We identify arrogant 
ignorance by its willingness to work on too big a scale, and thus to put too much 


at risk." 

It doesn't provide much reassurance that just two weeks before we all gathered 
at Chicheley Hall, three nuclear reactors at Fukushima melted down in the wake 
of a powerful tsunami. The story was still leading the news the entire time we met. 
And yet the extent to which the would-be geoengineers acknowledged the disaster 


was only to worry that opponents of nuclear energy would seize upon the crisis to 
block new reactors. They never entertained the idea that Fukushima might serve 
as a cautionary tale for their own high-risk engineering ambitions. 

Which brings us back to that slide showing parts of Africa lit up red that caused 
such a stir on opening night: is it possible that geoengineering, far from a quick 
emergency fix, could make the impacts of climate change even worse for a great 
many people? And if so, who is most at risk and who gets to decide to take those 

Like Climate Change, Volcanoes Do Discriminate 

Boosters of Solar Radiation Management tend to speak obliquely about the 
"distributional consequences" of injecting sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere, and 
of the "spatial heterogeneity" of the impacts. Petra Tschakert, a geographer at Penn 
State University, calls this jargon "a beautiful way of saying that some countries 


are going to get screwed." But which countries? And screwed precisely how? 

Having reliable answers to those key questions would seem like a prerequisite 
for considering deployment of such a world-altering technology. But it's not at all 
clear that obtaining those answers is even possible. Keith and Myhrvold can test 
whether a hose or an airplane is a better way to get sulfur dioxide into the 
stratosphere. Others can spray saltwater from boats or towers and see if it brightens 
clouds. But you'd have to deploy these methods on a scale large enough to impact 
the global climate system to be certain about how, for instance, spraying sulfur in 
the Arctic or the tropics will impact rainfall in the Sahara or southern India. But 
that wouldn't be a test of geoengineering; it would actually be conducting 


geoengineering. Nor could the necessary answers be found from a brief 
geoengineering stint — pumping sulfur for, say, one year. Because of the huge 
variations in global weather patterns from one year to the next (some monsoon 
seasons are naturally weaker than others, for instance), as well as the havoc already 
being wreaked by global warming, it would be impossible to connect a particular 
storm or drought to an act of geoengineering. Sulfur injections would need to be 
maintained long enough for a clear pattern to be isolated from both natural 
fluctuations and the growing impacts of greenhouse gases. That likely means 


keeping the project running for a decade or more. 

As Martin Bunzl, a Rutgers philosopher and climate change expert, points out, 
these facts alone present an enormous, perhaps insurmountable ethical problem for 


geoengineering. In medicine, he writes, "You can test a vaccine on one person, 
putting that person at risk, without putting everyone else at risk." But with 
geoengineering, "You can't build a scale model of the atmosphere or tent off part 
of the atmosphere. As such you are stuck going directly from a model to full scale 
planetary- wide implementation." In short, you could not conduct meaningful tests 
of these technologies without enlisting billions of people as guinea pigs — for years. 
Which is why science historian James Fleming calls geoengineering schemes 


"untested and untestable, and dangerous beyond belief." 

Computer models can help, to be sure. That's how we get our best estimates of 
how earth systems will be impacted by the emission of greenhouse gases. And it's 
straightforward enough to add a different kind of emission — sulfur in the 
stratosphere — to those models and see how the results change. Several research 
teams have done just that, with some very disturbing results. Alan Robock, for 
instance, has run different SRM scenarios through supercomputers. The findings 
of a 2008 paper he coauthored in the Journal of Geophysical Research were blunt: 
sulfur dioxide injections "would disrupt the Asian and African summer monsoons, 
reducing precipitation to the food supply for billions of people." Those monsoons 
provide precious freshwater to an enormous share of the world's population. India 
alone receives between 70 and 90 percent of its total annual rainfall during its June 


through September monsoon season. 

Robock and his colleagues aren't the only ones coming up with these alarming 
projections. Several research teams have produced models that show significant 
losses of rainfall as a result of SRM and other sunlight-reflecting geoengineering 
methods. One 2012 study shows a 20 percent reduction in rainfall in some areas of 
the Amazon after a particularly extreme use of SRM. When another team modeled 
spraying sulfur from points in the Northern Hemisphere for a 2013 study, the 
results projected a staggering 60-100 percent drop in a key measure of plant 
productivity in the African countries of the Sahel (Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, 
Niger, Senegal, and Sudan) — that means, potentially, a complete crop collapse in 


some areas. This is not some minor side effect or "unintended consequence." If 
only some of these projections were to come true, that would transform a process 
being billed as an emergency escape from catastrophic climate change into a mass 
killer in its own right. 

One might think all of this alarming research would be enough to put a serious 
damper on the upbeat chatter surrounding the Pinatubo Option. The problem is 
that — though computer models have proven remarkably accurate at predicting the 
broad patterns of climate change — they are not infallible. As we have seen from 


the failure to anticipate the severity of summer sea ice loss in the Arctic as well as 
the rate of global sea level rise in recent decades, computer models have tended to 


underestimate certain risks, and overstate others. Most significantly, climate 
models are at their weakest when predicting specific regional impacts — how much 
more southern Somalia will warm than the central United States, say, or the precise 
extent to which drought will impact crop production in India or Australia. This 
uncertainty has allowed some would-be geoengineers to scoff at findings that make 
SRM look like a potential humanitarian disaster, insisting that regional climate 
models are inherently unreliable, while simultaneously pointing to other models 
that show more reassuring results. And if the controversy were just a matter of 
dueling computer models, perhaps we could call it a draw. But that is not the case. 

History as Teacher — and Warning 

Without being able to rely on either models or field tests, only one tool remains to 
help forecast the risks of sun blocking, and it is distinctly low-tech. That tool is 
history, specifically the historical record of weather patterns following major 
volcanic eruptions. The relevance of history is something all sides of the debate 
appear to agree on. Ken Caldeira has described the 1991 eruption of Mount 
Pinatubo "as a natural test of some of the concepts underlying solar radiation 
management" since it sent so much sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere. And David 
Keith assured me, "It's pretty clear that just putting a lot of sulfur in the 
stratosphere isn't terrible. After all, volcanoes do it." Likewise, Lowell Wood, 
Myhrvold' s partner in the invention of the StratoShield, has argued that because 
his hose-to-the-sky would attempt to imitate a natural volcano, there is "a proof of 



Levitt and Dubner have stressed the relevance of historical precedent most 
forcefully, writing in SuperFreakonomics that not only did the earth cool after 
Pinatubo, but "forests around the world grew more vigorously because trees prefer 
their sunlight a bit diffused. And all that sulfur dioxide in the stratosphere created 
some of the prettiest sunsets that people had ever seen." They do not, however, 
appear to believe that history offers any cautionary lessons: aside from a reference 
to the "relatively small" number of deaths in the immediate aftermath of the 
eruption due to storms and mud slides, they make no mention in the book of any 


negative impact from Pinatubo. 


Critics of sun shielding also draw on history to bolster their arguments, and when 
they look back, they see much more than pretty sunsets and "proof of 
harmlessness." In fact, a great deal of compelling research shows a connection 
between large volcanic eruptions and precisely the kinds of droughts some 
computer models are projecting for SRM. Take the 1991 eruption of Mount 
Pinatubo itself. When it erupted, large swaths of Africa were already suffering 
from drought due to natural fluctuations. But after the eruption, the situation grew 
much worse. In the following year, there was a 20 percent reduction in 
precipitation in southern Africa and a 10-15 percent reduction in precipitation in 
South Asia. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) described the 
drought as "the most severe in the last century"; an estimated 120 million people 
were affected. The Los Angeles Times reported crop losses of 50-90 percent, and 


half the population of Zimbabwe required food aid. 

At the time, few linked these disastrous events to the Pinatubo eruption since 
isolating such climate signals takes time. But more recent research looking at 
rainfall and streamflow patterns from 1950 to 2004 has concluded that only the 
sulfur dioxide that Pinatubo sent into the stratosphere can account for the severity 
of the drop in rainfall that followed the eruption. Aiguo Dai, an expert in global 
drought at the State University of New York, Albany, stresses that though the 
drought had additional causes, "Pinatubo contributed significantly to the drying." 
A 2007 paper cowritten by Dai and Kevin Trenberth, head of the Climate Analysis 
Section at the Colorado-based National Center for Atmospheric Research, 
concluded "that the Pinatubo eruption played an important role in the record 
decline in land precipitation and discharge, and the associated drought conditions 
in 1992."- 

If Pinatubo was the only large eruption to have been followed by severe and life- 
endangering drought, that might not be enough to draw clear conclusions. But it 
fits neatly into a larger pattern. Alan Robock, a leading expert on the effect of 
volcanoes on climate, points in particular to two other eruptions — Iceland's Laki 
in 1783 and Alaska's Mount Katmai in 1912. Both were sufficiently powerful to 
send a high volume of sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere and, like Pinatubo, it 
turns out that both were followed by a series of terrible, or badly worsening 
regional droughts. 

Reliable records of rainfall go back only roughly one hundred years, but as 
Robock informed me, "There's one thing that's been measured for 1,500 years, 
and that's the flow of the Nile River. And if you look back at the flow of the Nile 
River in 1784 or 1785" — the two years following Laki's eruption in Iceland — "it 


was much weaker than normal." The usual floods that could be counted on to carry 
water and precious fertilizing nutrients into farmers' fields barely took place, the 
devastating consequences of which were recounted in the eighteenth-century travel 
memoirs of French historian Constantin-Francois Volney. "Soon after the end of 
November, the famine carried off, at Cairo, nearly as many as the plague; the 
streets, which before were full of beggars, now afforded not a single one: all had 
perished or deserted the city." Volney estimated that in two years, one sixth of the 
population in Egypt either died or fled the country.^ 

Scholars have noted that in the years immediately following the eruption, 
drought and famine gripped Japan and India, claiming millions of lives, although 
there is much debate and uncertainty surrounding Laki's contribution. In Western 
and Central Europe, meanwhile, a brutally cold winter led to flooding and high 
mortality rates. Expert estimates of the global death toll from the eruption and the 
resulting extreme weather range widely, from over one-and-a-half million to as 
many as six million people. At a time when world population was less than one 
billion, those are stunningly high numbers, making Laki quite possibly the 


deadliest volcano in recorded history.^ 

Robock found something similar when he delved into the aftermath of the 1912 
Katmai eruption in Alaska. Once again, his team looked at the historical record of 
the flow of the Nile and discovered that the year after Katmai saw "the lowest flow 
for the twentieth century." Robock and his colleagues also "had found a significant 
weakening of the Indian monsoon in response to the 1912 Katmai volcanic 
eruption in Alaska, which resulted from the decreased temperature gradient 
between Asia and the Indian Ocean." But it was in Africa where the impact of the 
great eruption took the heaviest human toll. In Nigeria, sorghum, millet, and rice 
crops withered in the fields while speculators hoarded what grains survived. The 
result was a massive famine in 1913-1914 that took the lives of at least 125,000 in 


western Africa alone. 

These are not the only examples of deadly droughts seemingly triggered by large 
volcanic eruptions. Robock has looked at how such eruptions have impacted "the 
water supply for Sahel and northern Africa" over the past two thousand years. 
"You get the same story from every [eruption] you look at," he said, adding, "there 
haven't been that many big eruptions but they all tell you the same stories.. . . The 
global average precipitation went down. In fact, if you look at global average 
precipitation for the last fifty years, the three years with the lowest global 
precipitation were after the three largest volcanic eruptions. Agung in 1963, El 
Chichon in 1982, and Pinatubo in 1991." The connections are so clear, Robock 


and two coauthors argued in one paper, that the next time there is a large "high- 
latitude volcanic eruption," policymakers should start preparing food aid 
immediately, "allowing society time to plan for and remediate the 



So how, given all this readily available evidence, could geoengineering boosters 
invoke the historical record for "proof of harmlessness"? The truth is the mirror 
opposite: of all the extreme events the planet periodically lobs our way — from 
earthquakes and tsunamis to hurricanes and floods — powerful volcanic eruptions 
may well be the most threatening to human life. Because the people in the 
immediate path of an eruption are not the only ones at risk; the lives of billions of 
others scattered throughout the globe can be destroyed by lack of food and water 
in the drier years to come. No naturally occurring disaster short of an asteroid has 
such global reach. 

This grim track record makes the cheerful talk of a Pinatubo Option distinctly 
bizarre, if not outright sinister — especially because what is being contemplated is 
simulating the cooling effects of an eruption like Pinatubo not once but year after 
year for decades, which could obviously magnify the significant risks that have 
been documented in the aftermath of one-off eruptions. 

The risks can be debated and contested, of course — and they are. The most 
common response is that, yes, there could be negative impacts, but not as negative 
as the impacts of climate change itself. David Keith goes further, arguing that we 
have the power to effectively minimize the risks with appropriate design; he 
proposes an SRM program that would slowly ramp up and then down again, "in 
combination with cutting emissions and with a goal to reduce — but not eliminate — 
the rate of temperature rise." As he explains in his 2013 book, A Case for Climate 
Engineering, "Crop losses, heat stress and flooding are the impacts of climate 
change that are likely to fall most harshly on the world [sic] poorest. The moderate 
amounts of geoengineering contemplated in this slow ramp scenario are likely to 
reduce each of these impacts over the next half century, and so it will benefit the 
poor and politically disadvantaged who are most vulnerable to rapid environmental 
change. This potential for reducing climate risk is the reason I take geoengineering 

i „40 


But when climate models and the historical record tell such a similar story about 
what could go wrong (and of course it wouldn't be scientists but politicians 
deciding how to use these technologies), there is ample cause for focusing on the 
very real risks. Trenberth and Dai, authors of the study on Pinatubo' s harrowing 
legacy, are blunt. "The central concern with geoengineering fixes to global 


warming is that the cure could be worse than the disease." And they stress, 
"Creating a risk of widespread drought and reduced freshwater resources for the 


world to cut down on global warming does not seem like an appropriate fix." 

It's hard not to conclude that the willingness of many geoegineering boosters to 
gloss over the extent of these risks, and in some cases, to ignore them entirely, has 
something to do with who appears to be most vulnerable. After all, if the historical 
record, backed by multiple models, indicated that injecting sulfur into the 
stratosphere would cause widespread drought and famine in North America and 
Germany, as opposed to the Sahel and India, is it likely that this Plan B would be 
receiving such serious consideration? 

It's true that it might be technically possible to conduct geoengineering in a way 
that distributed the risks more equitably. For instance, the same 2013 study that 
found that the African Sahel could be devastated by SRM done in the Northern 
Hemisphere — a common assumption about where the sulfur injections would take 
place — found that the Sahel could actually see an increase in rainfall if the 
injections happened in the Southern Hemisphere instead. However, in this 
scenario, the United States and the Caribbean could see a 20 percent increase in 
hurricane frequency, and northeastern Brazil could see its rainfall plummet. In 
other words, it might be possible to tailor some of these technologies to help the 
most vulnerable people on the planet, and those who contributed least to the 
creation of the climate crisis — but not without endangering some of the wealthiest 
and most powerful regions. So we are left with a question less about technology 
than about politics: does anyone actually believe that geoengineering will be used 
to help Africa if that help could come only by putting North America at greater 


risk of extreme weather? 

In contrast, it is all too easy to imagine scenarios wherein geoengineering could 
be used in a desperate bid to, say, save corn crops in South Dakota, even if it very 
likely meant sacrificing rainfall in South Sudan. And we can imagine it because 
wealthy-country governments are already doing this, albeit more passively, by 
allowing temperatures to increase to levels that are a danger to hundreds of millions 
of people, mostly in the poorest parts of the world, rather than introducing policies 
that interfere with short-term profits. This is why African delegates at U.N. climate 
summits have begun using words like "genocide" to describe the collective failure 
to lower emissions. And why Mary Ann Lucille Sering, climate change secretary 
for the Philippines, told the 2013 summit in Warsaw, Poland, "I am beginning to 
feel like we are negotiating on who is to live and who is to die." Rob Nixon, an 
author and University of Wisconsin English professor, has evocatively described 


the brutality of climate change as a form of "slow violence"; geoengineering could 


well prove to be a tool to significantly speed that up. 

Geoengineering as Shock Doctrine 

All of this may still seem somewhat abstract but it's critical to reckon with these 
harrowing risks now. That's because if geoengineering were ever deployed, it 
would almost surely be in an atmosphere of collective panic with scarce time for 
calm deliberation. Its defenders readily concede as much. Bill Gates describes 
geoengineering as "just an insurance policy," something to have "in the back 
pocket in case things happen faster." Nathan Myhrvold likens SRM to "having fire 
sprinklers in a building" — you hope you won't need it, "but you also need 


something to fall back on in case the fire occurs anyway." 

In a true emergency, who would be immune to this logic? Certainly not me. 
Sure, the idea of spraying sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere like some kind of 
cosmic umbrella seems crazy to me now. But if my city were so hot that people 
were dropping dead in the thousands, and someone was peddling a quick and dirty 
way to cool it off, wouldn't I beg for that relief in the same way that I reach for the 
air conditioner on a sweltering day, knowing full well that by turning it on I am 
contributing to the very problem I am trying to escape? 

This is how the shock doctrine works: in the desperation of a true crisis all kinds 
of sensible opposition melts away and all manner of high-risk behaviors seem 
temporarily acceptable. It is only outside of a crisis atmosphere that we can 
rationally evaluate the future ethics and risks of deploying geoengineering 
technologies should we find ourselves in a period of rapid change. And what those 
risks tell us is that dimming the sun is nothing like installing a sprinkler system — 
unless we are willing to accept that some of those sprinklers could very well spray 
gasoline instead of water. Oh — and that, once turned on, we might not be able to 
turn off the system without triggering an inferno that could burn down the entire 
building. If someone sold you a sprinkler like that, you'd definitely want a refund. 

Perhaps we do need to find out all we possibly can about these technologies, 
knowing that we will never know close to enough to deploy them responsibly. But 
if we accept that logic, we also have to accept that small field tests often turn into 
bigger ones. It may start with just checking the deployment hardware, but how 
long before the planet hackers want to see if they can change the temperature in 


just one remote, low-population location (something that will be described, no 
doubt, as "the middle of nowhere") — and then one a little less remote? 

The past teaches us that once serious field tests begin, deployment is rarely far 
behind. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were bombed less than a month after Trinity, the 
first successful nuclear test — despite the fact that many of the scientists involved 
in the Manhattan Project thought they were building a nuclear bomb that would be 
used only as a deterrent. And though slamming the door on any kind of knowledge 
is always wrenching, it's worth remembering that we have collectively foregone 
certain kinds of research before, precisely because we understand that the risks are 
too great. One hundred and sixty-eight nations are party to a treaty banning the 
development of biological weapons. The same taboos have been attached to 
research into eugenics because it can so easily become a tool to marginalize and 
even eliminate whole groups of people. Moreover the U.N. Environmental 
Modification Convention, which was adopted by governments in the late 1970s, 
already bans the use of weather modification as a weapon — a prohibition that 
today's would-be geoengineers are skirting by insisting that their aims are peaceful 
(even if their work could well feel like an act of war to billions). 

Monster Earth 

Not all geoengineering advocates dismiss the grave dangers their work could 
unleash. But many simply shrug that life is full of risks — and just as 
geoengineering is attempting to fix a problem created by industrialization, some 
future fix will undoubtedly solve the problems created by geoengineering. 

One version of the "we'll fix it later" argument that has gained a good deal of 
traction comes from the French sociologist Bruno Latour. His argument is that 
humanity has failed to learn the lessons of the prototypical cautionary story about 
playing god: Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. According to Latour, Shelley's real 
lesson is not, as is commonly understood, "don't mess with mother nature." Rather 
it is, don't run away from your technological mess-ups, as young Dr. Frankenstein 
did when he abandoned the monster to which he had given life. Instead, Latour 
says we must stick around and continue to care for our "monsters" like the deities 
that we have become. "The real goal must be to have the same type of patience and 
commitment to our creations as God the Creator, Himself," he writes, concluding, 
"From now on, we should stop flagellating ourselves and take up explicitly and 
seriously what we have been doing all along at an ever-increasing scale." (British 


environmentalist Mark Lynas makes a similar, defiantly hubristic argument in 


calling on us to become "The God Species" in his book of the same name.) 

Latour's entreaty to "love your monsters" has become a rallying cry in certain 
green circles, particularly among those most determined to find climate solutions 
that adhere to market logic. And the idea that our task is to become more 
responsible Dr. Frankensteins, ones who don't flee our creations like deadbeat 
dads, is unquestionably appealing. But it's a terribly poor metaphor for 
geoengineering. First, "the monster" we are being asked to love is not some mutant 
creature of the laboratory but the earth itself. We did not create it; it created — and 
sustains — us. The earth is not our prisoner, our patient, our machine, or, indeed, 
our monster. It is our entire world. And the solution to global warming is not to fix 
the world, it is to fix ourselves. 

Because geoengineering will certainly monsterize the planet as nothing 
experienced in human history. We very likely would not be dealing with a single 
geoengineering effort but some noxious brew of mixed-up techno-fixes — sulfur in 
space to cool the temperature, cloud seeding to fix the droughts it causes, ocean 
fertilization in a desperate gambit to cope with acidification, and carbon- sucking 
machines to help us get off the geo-junk once and for all. 

This makes geoengineering the very antithesis of good medicine, whose goal is 
to achieve a state of health and equilibrium that requires no further intervention. 
These technologies, by contrast, respond to the lack of balance our pollution has 
created by taking our ecosystems even further away from self-regulation. We 
would require machines to constantly pump pollution into the stratosphere and 
would be unable to stop unless we invented other machines that could suck existing 
pollution out of the lower atmosphere, then store and monitor that waste 
indefinitely. If we sign on to this plan and call it stewardship, we effectively give 
up on the prospect of ever being healthy again. The earth — our life support 
system — would itself be put on life support, hooked up to machines 24/7 to prevent 
it from going full-tilt monster on us. 

And the risks are greater still because we might well be dealing with multiple 
countries launching geoengineering efforts at once, creating unknown and 
unknowable interactions. In other words, a Frankenstein world, in which we try to 
solve one problem by making new ones, then pile techno-fixes onto those. And 
almost no one seems to want to talk about what happens if our geoengineering 
operations are interrupted for some reason — by war, terrorist attack, mechanical 
failure, or extreme weather. Or what if, in the middle of simulating the effects of a 
Mount Pinatubo-like eruption, a real Mount Pinatubo erupts. Would we risk 


bringing on what David Keith has described as "a worldwide Ice Age, a snowball 
earth," just because we forgot, yet again, that we are not actually in the driver's 

seat? 4 ^ 

The dogged faith in technology's capacity to allow us to leapfrog out of crisis is 
born of earlier technological breakthroughs — splitting the atom or putting a man 
on the moon. And some of the players pushing most aggressively for a techno-fix 
for climate change were directly involved in those earlier technological triumphs — 
like Lowell Wood, who helped develop advanced nuclear weaponry, or Gates and 
Myrhvold, who revolutionized computing. But as longtime sustainability expert 
Ed Ayres wrote in God's Last Offer, the "if we can put a man on the moon" 
boosterism "glosses over the reality that building rockets and building livable 
communities are two fundamentally different endeavors: the former required 
uncanny narrow focus; the latter must engage a holistic view. Building a livable 


world isn't rocket science; it's far more complex than that." 

Have We Really Tried Plan A? 

On day two of the geoengineering retreat at Chicheley Hall, a spirited debate 
breaks out about whether the U.N. has any role to play in governing 
geoengineering experiments. The scientists anxious to get their field tests off the 
ground are quickest to dismiss the institution, fearing an unwieldy process that 
would tie their hands. The participants from NGOs are not quite ready to throw out 
the institution that has been the primary forum for climate governance, flawed as 
it is. 

Just when things are getting particularly heated, there is a commotion outside 
the glass doors of the lecture hall. 

A fleet of brand-new luxury cars has pulled up outside and a retinue of people — 
noticeably better dressed than the ones in the geoengineering session — pile out, 
their polished wingtips and high heels crunching noisily on the gravel pathways. 
One of our hosts from the Royal Society explains that for the rest of the day, 
another retreat put on by the auto company Audi will also be holding its sessions 
in the refurbished coach house. I peek outside and notice that several signs bearing 
Audi's Olympics-like logo have appeared along the driveway. 

For the rest of the afternoon, our tense discussions about the ethics of blocking 
the sun are periodically interrupted by loud cheers coming from next door. The 
reason for the cheering is, we are told, a corporate secret, but the team from Audi 


is obviously very happy about something — next season's models, perhaps, or 
maybe sales figures. 

The Royal Society regularly rents out Chicheley Hall for corporate retreats and 
Downton Abbey-inspired weddings so the fact that these two meetings are taking 
place cheek-by-jowl in a country mansion is, of course, pure coincidence. Still, 
separated by nothing more than a thin sliding wall, it's hard not to feel that the 
angsty would-be geoengineers and the carefree German car sellers are in 
conversation with each other — as if, more than anything, the reckless experiments 
the people in our room are attempting to rationalize are really about allowing the 
car people in the next room to keep their party going. 

The mind has a habit of making connections out of random proximate events, 
but in this case, it's not entirely random. There is no doubt that some of the people 
pushing geoengineering see these technologies not as emergency bridges away 
from fossil fuels, but as a means to keep the fossil fuel frenzy going for as long as 
possible. Nathan Myhrvold, for one, has even proposed using the mountains of 
yellow sulfur that are produced as waste in the Alberta tar sands to shield the sun, 
which would conveniently allow the oil majors to keep digging and drilling 
indefinitely. "You could put one little pumping facility up there, and with one 
corner of one of those sulfur mountains, you could solve the whole global warming 
problem for the Northern Hemisphere." And David Keith's start-up company 
Carbon Engineering has not only Bill Gates as an investor, but also Murray 
Edwards, whose oil company Canadian Natural Resources is one of the biggest 
players in the tar sands.~ 

Neither of these is an isolated case. Corporations that either dig up fossil fuels 
or that, like car companies, are responsible for a disproportionate share of their 
combustion, have a long track record of promoting geoengineering as a response 
to climate change, one that they clearly see as preferable to stopping their pollution. 
This goes as far back as 1992, when the National Academy of Sciences 
copublished a controversial report titledPo/zcy Implications of Greenhouse 
Warming. To the consternation of many climate scientists, the document included 
a series of geoengineering options, some of them rather outlandish, from sending 
fifty thousand mirrors into earth's orbit to putting "billions of aluminized, 


hydrogen-filled balloons in the stratosphere to provide a reflective screen." 

Adding to the controversy was the fact that this chapter of the report was led by 
Robert A. Frosch, then a vice president at General Motors. As he explained at the 
time: "I don't know why anybody should feel obligated to reduce carbon dioxide 
if there are better ways to do it. When you start making deep cuts, you're talking 


about spending some real money and changing the entire economy. I don't 
understand why we're so casual about tinkering with the whole way people live on 
the Earth, but not tinkering a little further with the way we influence the 



And notably, it was BP's chief scientist, Steven Koonin, who convened one of 
the first formal scientific gatherings on geoengineering back in 2008. The 
gathering produced a report outlining a decade-long research project into climate 
modification, with a particular focus on Solar Radiation Management. (Koonin left 
BP to work for the Obama administration as the Department of Energy's under 
secretary for science.) 

It's much the same story at several influential think tanks that are generously 
funded with fossil fuel dollars. For instance, over a period of years, as it stoked the 
flames of climate change denial, the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) took 
millions of dollars in donations from ExxonMobil. It continues to be the top 
recipient of money from conservative foundations eager to block climate action, 
bringing in at least $86.7 million from those sources since 2003. And yet, in 2008, 
the think tank launched a department called the Geoengineering Project. The 
project has held several conferences, published multiple reports, and sent experts 
to testify before congressional hearings — all with the consistent message that 
geoengineering isn't a Plan B should emission cuts fail, but rather a Plan A. Lee 
Lane, who for several years was AEFs main spokesperson on the subject, 
explained in 2010, "For those of us who believe that climate change might, at some 
point, pose a grave threat — and that emissions containment is both costly and 
politically impractical — climate engineering is beginning to look like the last, best 

This position is striking given the think tank's well-documented history of 
attacks on climate science and concerted efforts to trash virtually every serious 
attempt to regulate emissions, including mild legislation favoring energy- efficient 
light bulbs (big government interference in "how we wish to light up our lives," as 


one AEI researcher put it).^ Some at the think tank have signaled their openness 
to a modest or revenue-neutral carbon tax in recent years, which along with 
geoengineering is an increasingly prominent fetish among non-climate-change- 
denying Republicans. Still, you would think that turning down the sun for every 
person on earth is a more intrusive form of big government than asking citizens to 
change their light bulbs. Indeed you would think that pretty much any policy option 
would be less intrusive. But that is to miss the point: for the fossil fuel companies 


and their paid champions, anything is preferable to regulating 
ExxonMobil, includingattempting to regulate the sun. 

The rest of us tend to see things differently, which is why the fact that 
geoengineering is being treated so seriously should underline the urgent need for 
a real Plan A — one based on emission reduction, however economically radical it 
must be. After all, if the danger of climate change is sufficiently grave and 
imminent for governments to be considering science-fiction solutions, isn't it also 
grave and imminent enough for them to consider just plain science-based 

Science tells us we need to keep the vast majority of proven fossil fuel reserves 
in the ground. It seems reasonable, then, that any government ready to fund 
experiments into climate alteration should also be willing, at the very least, to put 
a moratorium on new extreme energy development, while providing sufficient 
funding for a rapid transition to renewable energy. As the Tyndall Centre's Kevin 
Anderson points out, "At the moment we're digging out shale gas and tar sands 
and lots of coal. We're going to be digging under the Arctic. We don't need to 
concern ourselves too much with geo-engineering for the future, we just need to 


stop getting fossil fuels out of the ground today." 

And how about some other solutions discussed in these pages — like taking far 
larger shares of the profits from the rogue corporations most responsible for 
waging war on the climate and using those resources to clean up their mess? Or 
reversing energy privatizations to regain control over our grids? We have only the 
briefest window in which this strategy is viable, before we need to get off fossil 
fuels entirely, so surely it merits discussion. 

The Indian author and activist Vandana Shiva, meanwhile, points out that 
shifting to an agriculture model based on agro-ecological methods would not only 
sequester large amounts of carbon, it would reduce emissions and increase food 
security. And unlike geoengineering, "It's not a fifty-year experiment. It's an 
assured, guaranteed path that has been shown to work." Admittedly, such 
responses break all the free market rules. Then again, so did bailing out the banks 
and the auto companies. And they are still not close to as radical as breaking the 
primordial link between temperature and atmospheric carbon — all to meet our 
desire for planetary air-conditioning. 

If we were staring down the barrel of an imminent and unavoidable climate 
emergency, the kinds of monstrous calculations implicit in geoengineering — 
sacrifice part of Latin America in order to save all of China, or save the remaining 
glaciers and land ice to prevent catastrophic global sea level rise but risk 


endangering India's food source — might be unavoidable. But even if we acquire 
enough information to make those kinds of calculations (and it's hard to imagine 
how we could), we notably are not at that point. We have options, ones that would 
greatly decrease the chances of ever confronting those impossible choices, choices 
that indeed deserve to be described as genocidal. To fail to exercise those 
options — which is exactly what we are collectively doing — knowing full well that 
eventually the failure could force government to rationalize "risking" turning 
whole nations, even subcontinents, into sacrifice zones, is a decision our children 
may judge as humanity's single most immoral act. 

The Astronaut's Eye View 

There is a photograph from the day Richard Branson launched his $25 million 
Virgin Earth Challenge that keeps popping into my head at the 
geoengineering retreat. Branson, dressed in black, has a big grin on his face and he 
is gleefully tossing a plastic model of Planet Earth into the air as if it were a beach 
ball. Al Gore, looking unsure about whether this is a good idea, is standing by his 

. , 56 


This frozen moment strikes me as the perfect snapshot of the first incarnation of 
the climate movement: a wealthy and powerful man with the whole world literally 
in his hands, promising to save the fragile blue planet on our behalf. This heroic 
feat will be accomplished, he has just announced, by harnessing the power of 
human genius and the desire to get really, really rich. 

Pretty much everything is wrong with that picture. The reinvention of a major 
climate polluter into a climate savior based on little more than good PR. The 
assumption that dangling enough money can solve any mess we create. And the 
certainty that the solutions to climate change must come from above rather than 

But I've begun to think that there is another problem too — it has to do with that 
pale blue sphere that Branson was tossing skyward. For more than forty years, the 
view of the Earth from space has been the unofficial logo of the environmental 
movement — featured on countless T-shirts, pins, and bumper stickers. It is the 
thing that we are supposed to protect at U.N. climate conferences, and that we are 
called upon to "save" every Earth Day, as if it were an endangered species, or a 
starving child far away, or a pet in need of our ministrations. And that idea may be 


just as dangerous as the Baconian fantasy of the earth as a machine for us to master, 
since it still leaves us (literally) on top. 

When we marvel at that blue marble in all its delicacy and frailty, and resolve to 
save the planet, we cast ourselves in a very specific role. That role is of a parent, 
the parent of the earth. But the opposite is the case. It is we humans who are fragile 
and vulnerable and the earth that is hearty and powerful, and holds us in its hands. 
In pragmatic terms, our challenge is less to save the earth from ourselves and more 
to save ourselves from an earth that, if pushed too far, has ample power to rock, 
burn, and shake us off completely. That knowledge should inform all we do — 
especially the decision about whether to gamble on geoengineering. 

It wasn't supposed to be this way, of course. In the late 1960s, when NASA shared 
the first photographs of the whole earth from space, there was a great deal of 
rhapsodizing about how the image would spark a leap in human consciousness. 
When we were finally able to see our world as an interconnected and holistic entity 
we at last would understand that this lonely planet is our only home and that it is 
up to us to be its responsible caretakers. This was "Spaceship Earth" and the great 
hope was that being able to see it would cause everyone to grasp what British 
economist and author Barbara Ward meant when she said in 1966, "This space 
voyage is totally precarious. We depend upon a little envelope of soil and a rather 
larger envelope of atmosphere for life itself. And both can be contaminated and 



So how did we get from that humility before life's precariousness to Branson's 
game of planet beach ball? One person who saw it all coming was the irascible 
American novelist Kurt Vonnegut: "Earth is such a pretty blue and pink and white 
pearl in the pictures NASA sent me," he wrote in The New York Times Magazine in 
1969. "It looks so clean. You can't see all the hungry, angry earthlings down 


there — and the smoke and the sewage and trash and sophisticated weaponry." 

Before those pictures, environmentalism had mostly been intensely local — an 
earthy thing, not an Earth thing. It was Henry David Thoreau musing on the rows 
of white bush beans in the soil by Walden Pond. It was Edward Abbey ranging 
through the red rocks of southern Utah. It was Rachel Carson down in the dirt with 
DDT-contaminated worms. It was vividly descriptive prose, naturalist sketches, 
and, eventually, documentary photography and film seeking to awaken and inspire 
love for specific creatures and places — and, by extension, for creatures and places 
like them all over the world. 


When environmentalism went into outer space, adopting the perspective of the 
omniscient outsider, things did start getting, as Vonnegut warned, awfully blurry. 
Because if you are perpetually looking down at the earth from above, rather than 
up from its roots and soil, it begins to make a certain kind of sense to shuffle around 
pollution sources and pollution sinks as if they were pieces on a planet-sized 
chessboard: a tropical forest to drink up the emissions from a European factory; 
lower-carbon-fracked gas to replace coal; great fields of corn to displace 
petroleum; and perhaps in the not too distant future, iron in the oceans and sulfur 
dioxide in the stratosphere to counter carbon dioxide in the lower atmosphere. 

And all the while, just as Vonnegut warned, any acknowledgment of the people 
way down below the wispy clouds disappears — people with attachments to 
particular pieces of land with very different ideas about what constitutes a 
"solution." This chronic forgetfulness is the thread that unites so many fateful 
policy errors of recent years, from the decision to embrace fracked natural gas as 
a bridge fuel (failing to notice there were people on those lands who were willing 
to fight against the shattering of their territory and the poisoning of their water) to 
cap-and-trade and carbon offsets (forgetting the people once again, the ones forced 
to breathe the toxic air next to refineries that were being kept open thanks to these 
backroom deals, as well as the ones locked out of their traditional forests that were 
being converted into offsets). 

We saw the same above-it-all perspective take its toll, tragically, when many of 
these same players persuaded themselves that biofuels were the perfect low-carbon 
alternative to oil and gas — only to discover what would have been blindingly 
obvious if people had figured as prominently in their calculations as carbon: that 
using prime land to grow fuel puts the squeeze on food, and widespread hunger is 
the entirely predictable result. And we see the same problems when policymakers 
ram through industrial- scale wind farms and sprawling desert solar arrays without 
local participation or consent, only to discover that people are living on those lands 
with their own inconvenient opinions about how they should be used and who 
should benefit from their development. 

This lethal amensia is once again rearing its head in geoengineering discussions 
like the one at Chicheley Hall. It is awfully reassuring to imagine that a 
technological intervention could save Arctic ice from melting but, once again, far 
too little attention is being paid to the billions of people living in monsoon-fed 
parts of Asia and Africa who could well pay the price with their suffering, even 
their lives. 


In some cases, the effect of the astronaut's eye view proves particularly extreme. 
Their minds hovering out in orbit, there are those who begin to imagine leaving 
the planet for good — saying, "Goodbye Earth!" to quote Princeton physicist 
Gerard O'Neill, who, in the mid-1970s, started calling for the creation of space 
colonies to overcome the earth's resource limits. Interestingly, one of O'Neill's 
most devoted disciples was Stewart Brand, the founder of the Whole Earth 
Catalog, who spent a good chunk of the 1970s arguing that the U.S. government 
should build space colonies; today he is one of the most vocal proponents of Big 


Tech fixes to climate change, whether nuclear power or geoengineering. 

And he's not the only prominent geoengineering booster nurturing the ultimate 
escape fantasy. Lowell Wood, co-inventor of the hose-to-the-sky, is an evangelical 
proponent of terraforming Mars: there is "a 50/50 chance that young children now 
alive will walk on Martian meadows . . . will swim in Martian lakes," he told an 
Aspen audience in 2007, describing the technological expertise for making this 
happen as "kid's stuff." 

And then there is Richard Branson, Mr. Retail Space himself. In September 
2012, Branson told CBS This Morning that, "In my lifetime, I am determined to be 
part of starting a population on Mars. I think it is absolutely realistic. It will 
happen." This plan, he said, includes "people inhabiting Mars ... in sort of giant 
domes." In another interview, he revealed that he has put a striking amount of 
thought into who should be invited to this outer space cocktail party: "You're going 
to want physicians, you're going to want comedians, you're going to want fun 
people, beautiful people, ugly people, a good cross-section of what happens on 
Earth on Mars. People have got to be able to get on together, because it's going to 
be quite confined." Oh and one more person on the list: "It may be a one-way 
trip.... So maybe I'll wait till the last 10 years of my life, and then maybe go, if 
my wife will let me," Branson said. In explaining his rationale, the Virgin head has 
invoked physicist Stephen Hawking, who "thinks it's absolutely essential for 
mankind to colonize other planets because one day, something dreadful might 
happen to the Earth. And it would be very sad to see years of evolution going to 



So said the man whose airlines have a carbon footprint the size of Honduras' 
and who is pinning his hopes for planetary salvation not on emissions cuts, but on 


a carbon-sucking machine that hasn't been invented yet. Perhaps this is mere 
coincidence, but it does seem noteworthy that so many key figures in the 
geoengineering scene share a strong interest in a planetary exodus. For it is surely 


a lot easier to accept the prospect of a recklessly high-risk Plan B when you have, 
in your other back pocket, a Plan C. 

The danger is not so much that these visions will be realized; geoengineering the 
earth is a long shot, never mind terraforming Mars. Yet as Branson's own 
emissions illustrate so elegantly, these fantasies are already doing real damage in 
the here and now. As environmental author Kenneth Brower writes, "The notion 
that science will save us is the chimera that allows the present generation to 
consume all the resources it wants, as if no generations will follow. It is the 
sedative that allows civilization to march so steadfastly toward environmental 
catastrophe. It forestalls the real solution, which will be in the hard, nontechnical 
work of changing human behavior." And worst of all, it tells us that, "should the 
fix fail, we have someplace else to go." 

We know this escape story all too well, from Noah's Ark to the Rapture. What 
we need are stories that tell us something very different: that this planet is our only 
home, and that what goes around comes around (and what goes up, stays up for a 
very long time, so we'd better be careful what we put there). 

Indeed, if geoengineering has anything going for it, it is that it slots perfectly 
into our most hackneyed cultural narrative, the one in which so many of us have 
been indoctrinated by organized religion and the rest of us have absorbed from 
pretty much every Hollywood action movie ever made. It's the one that tells us 
that, at the very last minute, some of us (the ones that matter) are going to be saved. 
And since our secular religion is technology, it won't be god that saves us but Bill 
Gates and his gang of super-geniuses at Intellectual Ventures. We hear versions of 
this narrative every time a commercial comes on about how coal is on the verge of 
becoming "clean," about how the carbon produced by the tar sands will soon be 
sucked out of the air and buried deep underground, and now, about how the mighty 
sun will be turned down as if it were nothing more than a chandelier on a dimmer. 
And if one of the current batch of schemes doesn't work, the same story tells us 
that something else will surely arrive in the nick of time. We are, after all, the 
super-species, the chosen ones, the God Species. We will triumph in the end 
because triumphing is what we do. 

But after so many of our most complex systems have failed, from BP's 
deepwater drilling to the derivatives market — with some of our biggest brains 
failing to foresee these outcomes — there is some evidence that the power of this 
particular narrative arc is beginning to weaken. The Brookings Institution released 
a survey in 2012 that found that roughly seven in ten Americans think that trying 
to turn down the sun will do more harm than good. Only three in ten believe that 


"scientists would be able to find ways to alter the climate in a way that limits 
problems" caused by warming. And in a paper published in Nature Climate 
Change in early 2014, researchers analyzed data from interviews and a large online 
survey conducted in Australia and New Zealand — with the biggest sample size of 
any geoengineering public opinion study to date. Malcolm Wright, the study's lead 
author, explained, "The results show that the public has strong negative views 
towards climate engineering.... It is a striking result and a very clear pattern. 
Interventions such as putting mirrors in space or fine particles into the stratosphere 
are not well received." Perhaps most interesting of all given the high-tech subject, 


older respondents were more amenable to geoengineering than younger ones. 

And the best news is that the time of astronaut's eye- view environmentalism 
appears to be passing, with a new movement rising to take its place, one deeply 
rooted in specific geographies but networked globally as never before. Having 
witnessed the recent spate of big failures, this generation of activists is unwilling 
to gamble with the precious and irreplaceable, certainly not based on the reassuring 
words of overconfident engineers. 

This is a movement of many movements, and though utterly undetectable from 
space, it is beginning to shake the fossil fuel industry to its core. 

~ The retreat took place under the Chatham House Rule, which allows those attending to report on what 
was said in sessions, but not on who said what. (Any interviews conducted outside of the official sessions 
are exempt from these rules.) 

~ It's particularly troubling that within the small group of scientists, engineers, and inventors who dominate 
the geoengineering debate, there have been a disproportionate share of big public errors in the past. Take, 
for instance, Lowell Wood, co-creator of Myhrvold's StratoShield. Before becoming a prominent 
proponent of the "Pinatubo Option," Wood was best known for coming up with some of the more fantastical 
elements of Ronald Reagan's "Star Wars" missile defense program, widely discredited as expensive and 

~ That said, we would be wise to anticipate even small amounts of geoengineering unleashing a new age of 
weather-related geopolitical recrimination, paranoia, and possibly retaliation, with every future natural 
disaster being blamed — rightly or wrongly — on the people in faraway labs playing god. 

~ Ironically, the most reproduced of the earth-from-space photos was likely taken by Harrison Schmitt, a 
card-carrying climate change denier, former U.S. senator and a regular speaker at Heartland conferences. 
He was rather blase about the experience: "You seen one Earth, you've seen them all," he reportedly said. 




"The day capitalism is forced to tolerate non-capitalist societies in its 
midst and to acknowledge limits in its quest for domination, the day it is 
forced to recognize that its supply of raw material will not be endless, is 
the day when change will come. If there is any hope for the world at all, 
it does not live in climate-change conference rooms or in cities with tall 
buildings. It lives low down on the ground, with its arms around the 
people who go to battle every day to protect their forests, their mountains 
and their rivers because they know that the forests, the mountains and 
the rivers protect them. 

"The first step towards reimagining a world gone terribly wrong 
would be to stop the annihilation of those who have a different 
imagination — an imagination that is outside of capitalism as well as 
communism. An imagination which has an altogether different 
understanding of what constitutes happiness and fulfillment. To gain this 
philosophical space, it is necessary to concede some physical space for the 
survival of those who may look like the keepers of our past, but who may 
really be the guides to our future." 

-Arundhati Roy, 20 10 1 

"When I started the lawsuit against Chevron in 1993, 1 thought, 'What 
we need to do to fight this company and to get justice is we need to unite 
the Amazon.' And that was a hard challenge. That was a hard task 
ahead. And now, today, I dare to say that we must unite the entire world. 
We have to unite the entire world to fight these companies, to fight these 

-Luis Yanza, cofounder, Frente de Defensa de la Amazonia (Amazon 

Defense Front), 2010 2 




The New Climate Warriors 

"Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full 
scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost- 
effective measures to prevent environmental degradation." 

-The United Nations Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, 

1992 1 

"An honest and scrupulous man in the oil business is so rare as to rank 
as a museum piece." 


-U.S. Interior Secretary Harold Ickes, 1936 

"Passport," says the cop, tear gas canisters and grenades hanging off his 
bulletproof vest like medals of honor. We hand over the passports, along with press 
passes and other papers attesting that we are nothing more exciting than a vanload 
of Canadian documentary filmmakers. 

The riot cop takes the documents wordlessly, motioning to our translator to get 
out of the car. He then whispers at length to a colleague whose eyes remain fixed 
on the enormous biceps bulging from his own crossed arms. Another cop joins the 
huddle, then another. The last one pulls out a phone and painstakingly reads the 
names and numbers on each document to whoever is on the other end, occasionally 
shooting a question to our translator. More uniformed men mill nearby. I count 
eleven in total. It's getting dark, the dirt road on which we have been apprehended 
is a mess and drops off sharply on one side. There are no streetlights. 

I have the strong impression we are being deliberately screwed with — that the 
whole point of this lengthy document check is to force us to drive this rough road 
in the dark. But we all know the rules: look pleasant; don't make eye contact; don't 


speak unless spoken to. Resist the impulse to take pictures of the line of heavily 
armed cops standing in front of coils of barbed wire (happily it turns out our camera 
guy was filming through his mesh hat). And Rule No. 1 on encounters with 
arbitrary power: do not show how incredibly pissed off you are. 

We wait. Half an hour. Forty minutes. Longer. The sun sets. Our van fills with 
ravenous mosquitoes. We continue to smile pleasantly. 

As far as checkpoints go, I've seen worse. In post-invasion Iraq, everyone had 
to submit to full pat-downs in order to get in and out of any vaguely official 
building. Once on the way in and out of Gaza, we were scanned eight different 
ways and interrogated at length by both the Israeli Defense Forces and Hamas. 
What's strange about what is happening on this dirt road is that we are not in a war 
zone, at least not officially. Nor is this a military regime, or an occupied territory, 
or any other place you might expect to be held and interrogated at length without 
cause. This is a public road in Greece, a democratic state belonging to the European 
Union. Moreover this particular road is in Halkidiki, a world-renowned tourist 
destination that attracts many thousands of visitors every year, drawn to the 
peninsula's stunning combination of sandy beaches, turquoise waters, olive 
groves, and old-growth forests filled with four-hundred-year-old beech and oak 
trees and dotted with waterfalls. 

So what's up with all the riot police? The barbed wire? The surveillance cameras 
strapped to tree branches? 

Welcome to Blockadia 

What' s up is that this area is no longer a Greek vacationland, though the tourists 
still crowd the white-washed resorts and oceanfront tavernas, with their blue- 
checked tablecloths and floors sticky with ouzo. This is an outpost of a territory 
some have taken to calling "Blockadia." Blockadia is not a specific location on a 
map but rather a roving transnational conflict zone that is cropping up with 
increasing frequency and intensity wherever extractive projects are attempting to 
dig and drill, whether for open-pit mines, or gas fracking, or tar sands oil pipelines. 

What unites these increasingly interconnected pockets of resistance is the sheer 
ambition of the mining and fossil fuel companies: the fact that in their quest for 
high-priced commodities and higher-risk "unconventional" fuels, they are pushing 
relentlessly into countless new territories, regardless of the impact on the local 
ecology (in particular, local water systems), as well as the fact that many of the 


industrial activities in question have neither been adequately tested nor regulated, 
yet have already shown themselves to be extraordinarily accident-prone. 

What unites Blockadia too is the fact the people at the forefront — packing local 
council meetings, marching in capital cities, being hauled off in police vans, even 
putting their bodies between the earth-movers and earth — do not look much like 
your typical activist, nor do the people in one Blockadia site resemble those in 
another. Rather, they each look like the places where they live, and they look like 
everyone: the local shop owners, the university professors, the high school 
students, the grandmothers. (In the quaint seaside Greek village of Ierissos, with 
its red roofs and lively beach promenade, when an anti-mining rally is called, the 
owners of the tavernas have to wait tables themselves because their entire staffs 
are off at the demos.) 

Resistance to high-risk extreme extraction is building a global, grassroots, and 
broad-based network the likes of which the environmental movement has rarely 
seen. And perhaps this phenomenon shouldn't even be referred to as an 
environmental movement at all, since it is primarily driven by a desire for a deeper 
form of democracy, one that provides communities with real control over those 
resources that are most critical to collective survival — the health of the water, air, 
and soil. In the process, these place-based stands are stopping real climate crimes 
in progress. 

Seeing those successes, as well as the failures of top-down environmentalism, 
many young people concerned about climate change are taking a pass on the slick 
green groups and the big U.N. summits. Instead, they are flocking to the barricades 
of Blockadia. This is more than a change in strategy; it's a fundamental change in 
perspective. The collective response to the climate crisis is changing from 
something that primarily takes place in closed-door policy and lobbying meetings 
into something alive and unpredictable and very much in the streets (and 
mountains, and farmers' fields, and forests). 

Unlike so many of their predecessors, who've spent years imagining the climate 
crisis through the astronaut's eye view, these activists have dropped the model 
globes and are getting lower-case earth under their nails once again. As Scott 
Parkin, a climate organizer with the Rainforest Action Network, puts it: "People 
are hungry for climate action that does more than asks you to send emails to your 
climate-denying congressperson or update your Facebook status with some clever 
message about fossil fuels. Now, a new antiestablishment movement has broken 
with Washington's embedded elites and has energized a new generation to stand 


in front of the bulldozers and coal trucks." And it has taken the extractive 


industries, so accustomed to calling the shots, entirely by surprise: suddenly, no 
major new project, no matter how seemingly routine, is a done deal. 

In the Skouries forest near Ierissos where our van was stopped, the catalyst was 
a plan by the Canadian mining company Eldorado Gold to clear-cut a large swath 
of old-growth forest and reengineer the local water system in order to build a 
massive open-pit gold and copper mine, along with a processing plant, and a large 


underground mine. We were pulled over in a part of the forest that will be leveled 
to make way for a large dam and tailings pond, to be filled with liquid waste from 
the mining operation. It was like visiting someone who had just been given six 
months to live. 

Many of the people who reside in the villages nearby, who depend on this 
mountain for freshwater, are adamantly opposed to the mine. They fear for the 
health of their children and livestock, and are convinced that such a large-scale, 
toxic industrial operation has no place in a region highly dependent on tourism, 
fishing, and farming. Locals have expressed their opposition through every means 
they can think of. In a vacation community like this, that can make for odd 
juxtapositions: militant marches past miniature amusement parks and heated late 
night political meetings in thatched-roof bars that specialize in blender drinks. Or 
a local cheese maker, the pride of the village for his Guinness Book of World 
Records largest ever goat cheese, arrested and held in pretrial detention for weeks. 
Based on circumstantial evidence, the cheese maker and other villagers were 
suspects in an incident in which mining trucks and bulldozers were torched by 
masked intruders. 

Despite its remote location, the fate of the Skouries forest is a matter of intense 
preoccupation for the entire country. It is debated in the national parliament and 
on evening talk shows. For Greece's huge progressive movement, it is something 
of a cause celebre: urban activists in Thessaloniki and Athens organize mass 
demonstrations and travel to the woods for action days and fundraising concerts. 
"Save Skouries" graffiti can be seen all over the country and the official opposition 
party, the left-wing Syriza, has pledged that, if elected, it will cancel the mine as 
one of its first acts in power. 

The governing, austerity-enforcing coalition, on the other hand, has also seized 
on Skouries as a symbol. Greek prime minister Antonis Samaras has announced 
that the Eldorado mine will go ahead "at all costs," such is the importance of 
protecting "foreign investment in the country." Invoking Greece's ongoing 
economic troubles, his coalition has claimed that building the mine, despite the 
local opposition, is critical to sending a signal to world markets that the country is 


open for business. That will allow the nation to rapidly move ahead with a slate of 
other, highly controversial extractive projects currently in the pipeline: drilling for 
oil and gas in the Aegean and Ionian seas; new coal plants in the north; opening 
up previously protected beaches to large-scale development; and multiple other 
mining projects. As one prominent commentator put it, "This is the type of project 
that the country needs to overcome the economic crisis. "~ 

Because of these national stakes, the state has unleashed a level of repression 
against the anti-mine movement that is unprecedented in Greece since the dark 
days of dictatorship. The forest has been transformed into a battle zone, with rubber 
bullets reportedly fired and tear gas so thick it caused older residents to 


collapse. And of course the checkpoints, which are staggered along all the roads 
where heavy construction equipment has moved in. 

But in this outpost of Blockadia, the police aren't the only ones 
with checkpoints: In Ierissos, local residents set up checkpoints at each entrance to 
their village after over two hundred fully armed riot police marched through the 
town's narrow streets firing tear gas canisters in all directions; one exploded in the 


schoolyard, causing children to choke in class. To make sure they are never taken 
by surprise like this again, the checkpoints are staffed by volunteers around the 
clock, and when police vehicles are spotted someone runs to the church and rings 
the bell. In moments the streets are flooded with chanting villagers. 

Similar scenes, more reminiscent of civil war than political protest, are unfolding 
in countless other pieces of contested land around the world, all of which make up 
Blockadia' s multiplying front lines. About eight hundred kilometers to the north 
of the Greek standoff, the farming village of Pungesti, Romania, was gearing up 
for a showdown against Chevron and its plans to launch the country' s first shale 


gas exploration well. In the fall of 2013, farmers built a protest camp in a field, 
carted in supplies that could hold them for weeks, dug a latrine, and vowed to 
prevent Chevron from drilling. 

As in Greece, the response from the state was shockingly militarized, especially 
in such a pastoral environment. An army of riot police with shields and batons 
charged through the farm fields attacking peaceful demonstrators, several of whom 
were beaten bloody and taken away in ambulances. At one point angry villagers 
dismantled the fence protecting Chevron's operation, sparking more reprisals. In 
the village itself, riot police lined the streets like "a kind of occupying army," 
according to an eyewitness. Meanwhile, the roads into town were bisected with 


police checkpoints and a travel ban was in force, which conveniently prevented 
media from entering the conflict zone and even reportedly blocked residents from 
grazing their cattle. For their part, villagers explained that they had no choice but 
to stop an extraction activity that they were convinced posed a grave threat to their 
livelihoods. "We live on agriculture here," one local reasoned. "We need clear 
water. What will our cattle drink if the water gets spoiled?" 

Blockadia also stretches into multiple resource hot spots in Canada, my home 
country. For instance, in October 2013 — the same time that Pungesti was in the 
news — a remarkably similar standoff was playing out in the province of New 
Brunswick, on land claimed by the Elsipogtog First Nation, a Mi'kmaq community 
whose roots in what is now eastern Canada go back some ten thousand years. The 
people of Elsipogtog were leading a blockade against SWN Resources, the 
Canadian subsidiary of a Texas-based company, as it tried to conduct seismic 
testing ahead of a possible tracking operation. The land in question has not been 
handed over by war or treaty and Canada' s highest court has upheld the Mi'kmaq' s 
right to continue to access the natural resources of those lands and waters — rights 
the protesters say would be rendered meaningless if the territory becomes poisoned 
by tracking toxins. 

The previous June, members of the First Nation had announced the lighting of a 
"sacred fire," a ceremonial bonfire that would burn continuously for days, and 
invited non-Native Canadians to join them in blockading the gas company' s trucks. 
Many did, and for months demonstrators camped near the seismic testing area, 
blocking roads and equipment as hand drums pounded out traditional songs. On 
several occasions, trucks were prevented from working, and at one point a 
Mi'kmaq woman strapped herself to a pile of seismic testing gear to prevent it 
from being moved. 

The conflict had been mostly peaceful but then on October 17, acting on an 
injunction filed by the company, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police moved in to 
clear the road. Once again, a rural landscape was turned into a war zone: more than 
a hundred police officers — some armed with sniper rifles and accompanied by 
attack dogs — fired beanbag rounds into the crowd, along with streams of pepper 
spray and hoses. Elders and children were attacked and dozens were arrested, 
including the elected chief of the Elsipogtog First Nation. Some demonstrators 
responded by attacking police vehicles and by the end of the day, five cop cars and 
one unmarked van had burned. "Native shale-gas protest erupts in violence," read 
a typical headline. 


Blockadia has popped up, too, in multiple spots in the British countryside, where 
opponents of the U.K. government's "dash for gas" have used a range of creative 
tactics to disrupt industry activities, from protest picnics blockading the road to a 
fracking drill site in the tiny hamlet of Balcombe, West Sussex, to twenty-one 
activists shutting down a gas power station that towers over the abandoned 
historical village of West Burton and its beautiful river, the "silver" Trent, as 
Shakespeare describes it in Henry IV. After a daring climb, the group set up camp 
for more than a week atop two ninety- meter- high water cooling towers, making 
production impossible (the company was forced to drop a £5-million lawsuit in the 
face of public pressure). More recently, activists blocked the entrance to a fracking 
test site near the city of Manchester with a giant wind turbine blade laid on its 

Blockadia was also aboard the Arctic Sunrise, when thirty Greenpeace activists 
staged a protest in the Russian Arctic to draw attention to the dangers of the rush 
to drill under the melting ice. Armed Coast Guard officers rappelled onto the vessel 
from a helicopter, storming it commando- style, and the activists were thrown in 


jail for two months. Originally facing charges of piracy, which carry sentences 
of ten to fifteen years, the international activists were all eventually freed and 
granted amnesty after the Russian government was shamed by a huge international 
campaign, which included not just demonstrations in at least forty-nine countries 
but pressure from numerous heads of state and eleven Nobel Peace Prize winners 
(not to mention Paul McCartney). 

The spirit of Blockadia can be seen even in the most repressive parts of China, 
where herders in Inner Mongolia have rebelled against plans to turn their fossil 
fuel-rich region into the country's "energy base." "When it's windy, we get 
covered in coal dust because it's an open mine. And the water level keeps dropping 
every year," herder Wang Wenlin told the Los Angeles Times, adding, "There's 
really no point living here anymore." With courageous actions that have left 
several demonstrators dead outside the mines and blockades of coal trucks, locals 
have staged rolling protests around the region and have been met with ferocious 


state repression. 

It's partly due to this kind of internal opposition to coal mining that China 
imports increasing amounts of coal from abroad. But many of the places where its 
coal comes from are in the throes of Blockadia- style uprisings of their own. For 
instance, in New South Wales, Australia, opposition to new coal mining operations 
grows more serious and sustained by the month. Beginning in August 2012, a 
coalition of groups established what they call the "first blockade camp of a coal 


mine in Australia's history," where for a year and a half (and counting) activists 
have chained themselves to various entrances of the Maules Creek project — the 
largest mine under construction in the country, which along with others in the area 
is set to decimate up to half of the 7,500-hectare (18,500 acre) Leard State Forest 
and to wield a greenhouse gas footprint representing more than 5 percent of 
Australia's annual emissions, according to one estimate.^ 

Much of that coal is destined for export to Asia, however, so activists are also 
gearing up to fight port expansions in Queensland that would hugely increase the 
number of coal ships sailing from Australia each year, including through the 
vulnerable ecosystem of the Great Barrier Reef, a World Heritage Site and the 
earth's largest natural structure made up of living creatures. The Australian Marine 
Conservation Society describes the dredging of the ocean floor to make way for 
increased coal traffic as an "unprecedented" threat to the fragile reef, which is 
already under severe stress from ocean acidification and various forms of pollution 

This is only the barest of sketches of the contours of Blockadia — but no picture 
would be complete without the astonishing rise of resistance against virtually any 
piece of infrastructure connected to the Alberta tar sands, whether inside Canada 
or in the United States. 

And none more so than TransCanada' s proposed Keystone XL pipeline. Part of 
the broader Keystone Pipeline System crisscrossing the continent, the first phase 
of the project, known as Keystone 1, got off to an inauspicious start. In its first 
year or so of operation, pump stations along the pipeline spilled tar sands oil 
fourteen times in the U.S. Most spills were small, but two of the biggest forced the 
entire pipeline to shut down twice in a single month. In one of these cases, a North 
Dakota rancher woke up to the sight of an oil geyser surging above the cottonwood 
trees near his farm, remarking that it was "just like in the movies when you strike 
oil and it's shooting up." If Keystone XL is constructed in full (the southern leg, 
from Oklahoma to export terminals on the Texas coast, is already up and running), 
the $7 billion project will add a total of 2,677 kilometers of new pipeline running 
through seven states and provinces, delivering up to 830,000 barrels per day of 


mostly tar sands oil to Gulf Coast refineries and export terminals. 

It was Keystone that provoked that historic wave of civil disobedience in 
Washington, D.C., in 201 1 (see page 139), followed by what were then the largest 
protests in the history of the U.S. climate movement (more than 40,000 people 
outside the White House in February 2013). And it is Keystone that brought 
together the unexpected alliance of Indigenous tribes and ranchers along the 


pipeline route that became known as "the Cowboy and Indian alliance" (not to 
mention unlikely coalitions that brought together vegan activists who think meat 
is murder with cattle farmers whose homes are decorated with deer heads). In fact 
the direct-action group Tar Sands Blockade first coined the term "Blockadia" in 
August 2012, while planning what turned into an eighty-six-day tree blockade 
challenging Keystone's construction in East Texas. This coalition has used every 
imaginable method to stop the pipeline's southern leg, from locking themselves 
inside a length of pipe that had not yet been laid, to creating a complex network of 


treehouses and other structures along the route. 

In Canada, it was the Northern Gateway pipeline, being pushed by the energy 
company Enbridge, that similarly awoke the sleeping giant of latent ecological 
outrage. The 1,177-kilometer pipe would begin near Edmonton, Alberta, and carry 
525,000 barrels of mostly diluted tar sands oil per day across roughly one thousand 
waterways, passing through some of the most pristine temperate rainforest in the 
world (and highly avalanche -prone mountains), finally ending in a new export 
terminal in the northern British Columbia town of Kitimat. There the oil would be 
loaded onto supertankers and then navigated through narrow Pacific channels that 
are often battered by ferocious waves (resorts in this part of B.C. market winter as 
"storm-watching" season). The sheer audacity of the proposal — putting so much 
of Canada's most beloved wilderness, fishing grounds, beaches, and marine life at 
risk — helped give birth to an unprecedented coalition of Canadians who oppose 
the project, including a historic alliance of Indigenous groups in British Columbia 
who have vowed to act as "an unbroken wall of opposition from the U.S. border 
to the Arctic Ocean," to stop any new pipeline that would carry tar sands oil 
through their collective territory.^ 

The companies at the centers of these battles are still trying to figure out what 
hit them. TransCanada, for instance, was so sure it would be able to push through 
the Keystone XL pipeline without a hitch that it went ahead and bought over $1 
billion worth of pipe. And why not? President Obama has an "all of the above" 
energy strategy, and Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper called the project a 
"no-brainer." But instead of the rubberstamp TransCanada was expecting, the 
project sparked a movement so large it revived (and reinvented) U.S. 

Spend enough time in Blockadia and you start to notice patterns. The slogans on 
the signs: "Water is life," "You can't eat money," "Draw the line." A shared 
determination to stay in the fight for the long haul, and to do whatever it takes to 
win. Another recurring element is the prominent role played by women, who often 


dominate the front lines, providing not only powerful moral leadership but also 
some of these movements' most enduring iconography. In New Brunswick, for 
instance, the image of a lone Mi'kmaq mother, kneeling in the middle of the 
highway before a line of riot police, holding up a single eagle feather went viral. 
In Greece, the gesture that captured hearts and minds was when a seventy-four- 
year-old woman confronted a line of riot police by belting out a revolutionary song 
that had been sung by the Greek resistance against German occupation. From 
Romania, the image of an old woman wearing a babushka and holding a knobby 
walking stick went around the world under the caption: "You know your 


government has failed when your grandma starts to riot." 

The various toxic threats these communities are up against seem to be 
awakening impulses that are universal, even primal — whether it's the fierce drive 
to protect children from harm, or a deep connection to land that had been 
previously suppressed. And though reported in the mainstream press as isolated 
protests against specific projects, these sites of resistance increasingly see 
themselves as part of a global movement, one opposing the latest commodities 
rush wherever it is taking place. Social media in particular has allowed 
geographically isolated communities to tell their stories to the world, and for those 
stories, in turn, to become part of a transnational narrative about resistance to a 
common ecological crisis. 

So busloads of anti-fracking and anti-mountaintop-removal activists traveled to 
Washington, D.C., to protest the Keystone XL pipeline, knowing they are up 
against a common enemy: the push into ever more extreme and high-risk forms of 
fossil fuel. Communities in France, upon discovering that their land has been 
leased to a gas company for something called "hydraulic fracturing" — a previously 
unknown practice in Europe — got in contact with French-speaking activists in 
Quebec, who had successfully won a moratorium against the practice (and they, in 
turn, relied heavily on U.S. activists, in particular the documentary film Gasland, 


which has proved to be a potent global organizing tool).^~ And eventually the 
entire global movement came together for a "Global Frackdown" in September 
2012, with actions in two hundred communities in more than twenty countries, 
with even more participating a year later. 

Something else unites this network of local resistance: widespread awareness of 
the climate crisis, and the understanding that these new extraction projects — which 
produce far more carbon dioxide, in the case of the tar sands, and more methane, 
in the case of tracking, than their conventional counterparts — are taking the entire 
planet in precisely the wrong direction. These activists understand that keeping 


carbon in the ground, and protecting ancient, carbon-sequestering forests from 
being clear-cut for mines, is a prerequisite for preventing catastrophic warming. 
So while these conflicts are invariably sparked by local livelihood and safety 
concerns, the global stakes are never far from the surface. 

Ecuadorian biologist Esperanza Martinez, one of the leaders of the movement 
for an "oil-free Amazon," asks the question at the heart of all of these campaigns: 
"Why should we sacrifice new areas if fossil fuels should not be extracted in the 
first place?" Indeed, if the movement has a guiding theory, it is that it is high time 
to close, rather than expand, the fossil fuel frontier. Seattle -based environmental 
policy expert KC Golden has called this "the Keystone Principle." He explains, 
"Keystone isn't simply a pipeline in the sand for the swelling national climate 
movement." It's an expression of the core principle that before we can effectively 
solve this crisis, we have to "stop making it worse. Specifically and categorically, 
we must cease making large, long-term capital investments in new fossil fuel 
infrastructure that 'locks in' dangerous emission levels for many decades . . . step 


one for getting out of a hole: Stop digging." 

So if Obama's energy policy is "all of the above" — which effectively means full 
steam ahead with fossil fuel extraction, complemented with renewables around the 
margins — Blockadia is responding with a tough philosophy that might be 
described as "None of the below." It is based on the simple principle that it's time 
to stop digging up poisons from the deep and shift, with all speed, to powering our 
lives from the abundant energies on our planet's surface. 

Operation Climate Change 

While the scale and connectivity of this kind of anti-extraction activism is certainly 
new, the movement began long before the fight against Keystone XL. If it's 
possible to trace this wave back to a time and place, it should probably be the 1990s 
in what is surely the most oil-ravaged place on the planet: the Niger Delta. 

Since the doors to foreign investors were flung open near the end of British 
colonial rule, oil companies have pumped hundreds of billions of dollars' worth of 
crude out of Nigeria, most from the Niger Delta, while consistently treating its 
land, water, and people with undisguised disdain. Wastewater was dumped directly 
into rivers, streams, and the sea; canals from the ocean were dug willy-nilly, 
turning precious freshwater sources salty, and pipelines were left exposed and 
unmaintained, contributing to thousands of spills. In an often cited statistic, 


an Exxon Valdez-worth of oil has spilled in the Delta every year for about fifty 


years, poisoning fish, animals, and humans. 

But none of this compares with the misery that is gas flaring. Over the course of 
extracting oil, a large amount of natural gas is also produced. If the infrastructure 
for capturing, transporting, and using that gas were built in Nigeria, it could meet 
the electricity needs of the entire country. Yet in the Delta, the multinational 
companies mostly opt to save money by setting it on fire, or flaring it, which sends 
the gas into the atmosphere in great pillars of polluting fire. The practice is 
responsible for about 40 percent of Nigeria's total CO2 emissions (which is why, 
as discussed, some companies are absurdly trying to collect carbon credits for 
stopping this practice). Meanwhile, more than half of Delta communities lack 
electricity and runningwater, unemployment is rampant, and, in a cruel irony, the 


region is plagued by fuel shortages.^ 

Since the 1970s, Nigerians living in the Delta have been demanding redress for 
the damage done to them by multinational oil giants. The fight entered a new phase 
at the start of the 1990s when the Ogoni — a relatively small Indigenous group in 
the Niger Delta — organized the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People 
(MOSOP), led by the famed human rights activist and playwright Ken Saro-Wiwa. 
The group took particular aim at Shell, which had extracted $5.2 billion from 


Ogoniland between 1958 and 1993. 

The new organization did more than beg the government for better conditions, 
it asserted the rights of the Ogoni people to control the resources under their lands 
and set about taking those rights back. Not only were oil installations shut down, 
but as Nigerian political ecologist and environmental activist Godwin Uyi Ojo 
writes that, on January 4, 1993, "an estimated 300,000 Ogoni, including women 
and children, staged a historic non- violent protest, and marched against Shell's 
'ecological wars.' "That year, Shell was forced to pull out of Ogoni territory, 
forsaking significant revenues (though the company remains the biggest oil player 
in other parts of the Delta). Saro-Wiwa stated that the Nigerian state "will have to 


shoot and kill every Ogoni man, woman and child to take more of their oil." 

To this day, oil production has ceased in Ogoniland — a fact that remains one of 
the most significant achievements of grassroots environmental activism anywhere 
in the world. Because of Ogoni resistance, carbon has stayed in the ground and out 
of the atmosphere. In the two decades since Shell withdrew, the land has slowly 
begun to heal, and there are tentative reports of improved farming output. This 
represents, according to Ojo, "on a global scale, the most formidable community- 


wide resistance to corporate oil operations." 


But Shell's banishment was not the end of the story. From the start of the 
protests, the Nigerian government — which relies on oil for 80 percent of its 
revenues and 95 percent of its export earnings — saw the organized Ogoni as a 
grave threat. As the region mobilized to take its land back from Shell, thousands 
of Delta residents were tortured and killed and dozens of Ogoni villages were 
razed. In 1995, the military regime of General Sani Abacha tried Ken Saro-Wiwa 
and eight of his compatriots on trumped-up charges. And then all nine men were 
hanged, fulfilling Saro-Wiwa' s prediction that "they are going to arrest us all and 


execute us. All for Shell." 

It was a wrenching blow to the movement, but residents of the Niger Delta 
fought on. By employing increasingly militant tactics like taking over offshore oil 
platforms, oil barges, and flow stations, this community-led resistance managed to 


shut down roughly twenty oil installations, significantly reducing production. 

A key and little examined chapter in the Niger Delta's fossil fuel resistance took 
place at the tail end of 1998. Five thousand young people belonging to the Ijaw 
Nation, one of the largest ethnic groups in Nigeria, held a gathering in Kaiama, a 
town in a southern province of the Delta. There, the Ijaw Youth Council drafted 
the Kaiama Declaration, which asserted that 70 pecent of the government's oil 
revenues came from Ijaw land and that, "Despite these huge contributions, our 
reward from the Nigerian State remains avoidable deaths resulting from ecological 
devastation and military repression." The declaration — endorsed by a huge cross- 
section of Delta society — stated: "All land and natural resources (including 
mineral resources) within the Ijaw territory belong to Ijaw communities and are 
the basis of our survival," and went on to demand "Self Government and resource 



But it was Clause 4 that commanded the most attention: "We, therefore, demand 
that all oil companies stop all exploration and exploitation activities in the Ijaw 
area. . . . Hence, we advise all oil companies staff and contractors to withdraw from 
Ijaw territories by the 30th December, 1998 pending the resolution of the issue of 


resource ownership and control in the Ijaw area of the Niger Delta." 

The Ijaw Youth Council voted unanimously to call their new offensive 
Operation Climate Change. "The idea was: we are going to change our world," 
Isaac Osuoka, one of the movement's organizers, told me. "There was an 
understanding of the link that the same crude oil that impoverishes us, also 
impoverishes the Earth. And that a movement to change the wider world can begin 
from changing our own world." This was, in other words, an attempt at another 
kind of climate change — an effort by a group of people whose lands had been 


poisoned and whose future was imperiled to change their political climate, their 


security climate, their economic climate, and even their spiritual climate. 

As promised, on December 30 the youth took to the streets in the thousands. The 
leadership instructed participants not to carry weapons and not to drink. The 
demonstrations — calledO geles, which are traditional Ijaw processions — were 
nonviolent and dramatic. Many participants wore black, held candles, sang, 
danced, and drummed. Several oil platforms were occupied, not with arms but 
through the sheer numbers of bodies that overwhelmed security guards. 
"Sometimes," Osuoka recalled in a phone interview, "a person will have worked 
for a short time for the oil companies, so they knew which valve was the one to 
turn off." 

The Nigerian government's response was overwhelming. An estimated fifteen 
thousand troops were mobilized, warships were sent, as were fleets of tanks. In 
some regions the government declared a state of emergency and imposed a curfew. 
According to Osouka, "In village after village, soldiers deployed by the state 
opened fire on unarmed citizens." In the towns of "Kaiama, Mbiama, and Yenagoa 
people were killed in the streets and women and young girls were raped in their 


homes as the state unleashed mayhem, ostensibly to defend oil installations." 

The confrontations continued for about a week. By the end, as many as 200 or 
possibly more lives were reported lost, and dozens of houses had been burned to 
the ground. In at least one case, the soldiers who conducted lethal raids flew into 
the area on a helicopter taken from a Chevron operation. (The oil giant claimed it 
had no choice but to allow the equipment to be used by the military, since it came 
from a joint venture with the Nigerian government, though as Human Rights 
Watch noted, "The company did not issue any public protest at the killings; nor 
has it stated that it will take any steps to avoid similar incidents in the future.")^ 

Brutal events like these go a long way toward explaining why many young 
people in the Niger Delta today have lost their faith in nonviolence. And why, by 
2006, the area was in the throes of a full-blown armed insurgency, complete with 
bombings of oil infrastructure and government targets, rampant pipeline 
vandalism, ransom kidnapping of oil workers (designated as "enemy combatants" 
by the militants), and, more recently, amnesty deals that offered cash for guns. 
Godwin Uyi Ojo writes that, as the armed conflict wore on, "grievance was soon 


mingled with greed and violent crimes." In the process, the original goals of the 
movement — to stop the ecological plunder, and take back control over the region's 
resource — became harder to decipher. 


And yet it is worth looking back to the 1990s when the aims were clear. Because 
what is evident in the original struggles of the Ogoni and Ijaw is that the fight 
against violent resource extraction and the fight for greater community control, 
democracy, and sovereignty are two sides of the same coin. The Nigerian 
experience also had a huge and largely uncredited influence on other resource-rich 
regions in the Global South that found themselves facing off against multinational 
oil giants. 

The most important such exchange took place in 1995, immediately after the 
killing of Ken Saro-Wiwa, when activists from Environmental Rights Action in 
Nigeria formed an alliance with a similar organization in Ecuador, called Accion 
Ecologica. At that time Accion Ecologica was neck deep in an environmental and 
human health disaster that Texaco had left behind in a northeastern region of the 
country, an incident that became known as the "Rainforest Chernobyl." (Chevron, 
after acquiring Texaco, was later ordered to pay $9.5 billion in damages by the 


Ecuadorian supreme court; the legal battles are still ongoing). These frontline 
activists in two of the worst oil-impacted regions on the planet formed an 
organization called Oilwatch International, which has been at the forefront of the 
global movement to "leave the oil in the soil" and whose influence can be felt 
throughout Blockadia. 

As the experiences in Nigeria and Ecuador make clear, anti-extraction activism is 
not a new phenomenon. Communities with strong ties to the land have always, and 
will always, defend themselves against businesses that threaten their ways of life. 
And fossil fuel resistance has a long history in the United States, most notably 
against mountaintop removal coal mining in Appalachia. Moreover, direct action 
against reckless resource extraction has been a part of the environmental 
movement for a very long time and has succeeded in protecting some of the 
planet's most biologically diverse lands and waters. Many of the specific tactics 
being used by Blockadia activists today — tree-sits and equipment lockdowns in 
particular — were developed by Earth First! in the 1980s, when the group fought 
"wars in the woods" against clear-cut logging. 

What has changed in recent years is largely a matter of scale, which is itself a 
reflection of the dizzying ambitions of the extractive project at this point in history. 
The rise of Blockadia is, in many ways, simply the flip side of the carbon boom. 
Thanks to a combination of high commodity prices, new technologies, and 
depleted conventional reserves, the industry is going further on every front. It is 


extracting more, pushing into more territory, and relying on more risky methods. 
Each of these factors is fueling the backlash, so it's worth looking at each in turn. 

All in the Sacrifice Zone 

Though there are certainly new and amplified risks associated with our era of 
extreme energy (tar sands, fracking for both oil and gas, deepwater drilling, 
mountaintop removal coal mining), it's important to remember that these have 
never been safe or low-risk industries. Running an economy on energy sources that 
release poisons as an unavoidable part of their extraction and refining has always 
required sacrifice zones — whole subsets of humanity categorized as less than fully 
human, which made their poisoning in the name of progress somehow acceptable. 

And for a very long time, sacrifice zones all shared a few elements in common. 
They were poor places. Out-of-the-way places. Places where residents lacked 
political power, usually having to do with some combination of race, language, 
and class. And the people who lived in these condemned places knew they had 
been written off. To quote Paula Swearengin, an activist from a coal mining family 
near Beckley, West Virginia, a landscape ravaged by mountaintop -removal coal 


mining: "We live in the land of the lost." 

Through various feats of denialism and racism, it was possible for privileged 
people in North America and Europe to mentally cordon off these unlucky places 
as hinterlands, wastelands, nowheres — or unluckiest of all, as in the case of Nauru, 
middle of nowheres. For those fortunate enough to find ourselves outside those 
condemned borders, myself among them, it seemed as if our places — the ones 
where we live and to which we escape for pleasure (the assumed somewheres, the 
centers, or best of all, the centers of everywhere) — would not be sacrificed to keep 
the fossil fuel machine going. 

And up until quite recently, that has held up as the grand bargain of the carbon 
age: the people reaping the bulk of the benefits of extractivism pretend not to see 
the costs of that comfort so long as the sacrifice zones are kept safely out of view. 

But in less than a decade of the extreme energy frenzy and the commodity boom, 
the extractive industries have broken that unspoken bargain. In very short order, 
the sacrifice zones have gotten a great deal larger, swallowing ever more territory 
and putting many people who thought they were safe at risk. Not only that, but 
several of the largest zones targeted for sacrifice are located in some of the 
wealthiest and most powerful countries in the world. For instance, Daniel Yergin, 


energy industry consultant (and author of The Prize), euphorically described the 
newfound capacity to extract oil from "tight rock" formations — usually shale — as 
being akin to discovering whole new petrostates: "This is like adding another 
Venezuela or Kuwait by 2020, except these tight oil fields are in the United 
States." 40 

And of course it's not just the communities next to these new oil fields that are 
asked to sacrifice. So much oil is now being extracted in the U.S. (or "Saudi 
America," as some market watchers call it) that the number of rail cars carrying 
oil has increased by 4111 percent in just five years, from 9,500 cars in 2008 to an 
estimated 400,000 in 2013. (Little wonder that significantly more oil spilled in 
U.S. rail incidents in 2013 than spilled in the previous forty years combined — or 
that trains engulfed in smoking fireballs have become increasingly frequent sights 
on the nightly news.) In practice this means that hundreds if not thousands of towns 
and cities suddenly find themselves in the paths of poorly maintained, 
underregulated "oil bomb" trains — towns like Quebec's Lac-Megantic, where, in 
July 2013, a train carrying seventy-two tank cars of fracked Bakken oil (more 
flammable than the regular kind) exploded, killing forty- seven people and 
flattening half of its picturesque downtown. (Former North Dakota governor 
George Sinner said the oil trains posed a "ridiculous threat" shortly after one blew 


up near his native town of Casselton.) 

The Alberta tar sands, meanwhile, are growing so fast that the industry will soon 
be producing more of its particular brand of high-carbon oil than current pipeline 
capacity can handle — which is why it is so determined to push projects like 
Keystone XL through the U.S. and Northern Gateway through British Columbia. 
"If there was something that kept me up at night," said Alberta's (then) energy 
minister Ron Liepert in June 201 1, "it would be the fear that before too long we're 
going to be landlocked in bitumen. We're not going to be an energy superpower if 


we can't get the oil out of Alberta."^ But building those pipelines, as we have 
seen, impacts a huge number of communities: the ones living along thousands of 
kilometers of proposed pipe, as well as those who live along vast stretches of 
coastline that would see their waters crowded with oil tankers, courting disaster. 

No place, it seems, is off limits, and no extractive activity has set its sights on 
more new land than hydraulic fracturing for natural gas. To quote Chesapeake 
Energy's then-CEO Aubrey McClendon, in 2010, "In the last few years we have 
discovered the equivalent of two Saudi Arabias of oil in the form of natural gas in 


the United States. Not one, but two." Which is why the industry is fighting to 
frack wherever it can. The Marcellus Shale, for instance, spans parts of 


Pennsylvania, Ohio, New York, West Virginia, Virginia, and Maryland. And it is 
just one of many such massive blankets of methane-rich rock. 

The endgame, according to Republican politician Rick Santorum, is to "drill 
everywhere" — and it shows. As The Guardian'?, Suzanne Goldenberg reports, 
"Energy companies have fracked wells on church property, school grounds and in 
gated developments. Last November, an oil company put a well on the campus of 
the University of North Texas in nearby Denton, right next to the tennis courts and 
across the road from the main sports stadium and a stand of giant wind turbines." 
Fracking now covers so much territory that, according to a 2013 Wall Street 
Journal investigation, "more than 15 million Americans live within a mile of a 


well that has been drilled and fracked since 2000." 

In Canada, the ambitions are just as aggressive. "As of mid-2012, the entire 
underground subsoil of Montreal, Laval, and Longueuil (three of the main cities in 
Quebec) had been claimed by gas and petrol companies," reports Kim Cornelissen, 
a former politician turned anti-fracking campaigner in the province. (So far, 
Quebec's residents have managed to fend off the gas companies with a 
moratorium.) In Britain, the area under consideration for fracking adds up to about 
half the entire island. And in July 2013, residents of the northeast of England were 
enraged to hear their region described as "uninhabited and desolate" in the House 
of Lords — and therefore eminently deserving of sacrifice. "Certainly in part of the 
northeast where there's plenty of room for fracking, well away from anybody's 
residence where we could conduct [it] without any kind of threat to the rural 
environment," said Lord Howell, who had been an energy advisor to David 
Cameron's government. 

This is coming as a rude surprise to a great many historically privileged people 
who suddenly find themselves feeling something of what so many frontline 
communities have felt for a very long time: how is it possible that a big distant 
company can come to my land and put me and my kids at risk — and never even 
ask my permission? How can it be legal to put chemicals in the air right where they 
know children are playing? How is it possible that the state, instead of protecting 
me from this attack, is sending police to beat up people whose only crime is trying 
to protect their families? 

This unwelcome awakening has made the fossil fuel sector a whole lot of 
enemies out of onetime friends. People like South Dakota cattle rancher John 
Harter, who went to court to try to stop TransCanada from burying a portion of the 
Keystone XL pipeline on his land. "I've never considered myself a bunny hugger," 
he told a reporter, "but I guess if that's what I've got to be called now, I'm OK 


with it." The industry has also alienated people like Christina Mills, who worked 
as an auditor for oil companies in Oklahoma for much of her career. But when a 
gas company started fracking in her middle-class North Texas subdivision, her 
views of the sector changed. "They made it personal here, and that's when I had a 
problem. . . . They came into the back of our neighbourhood, 300ft from the back 


fence. That is so intrusive." 

And fracking opponents could only laugh when, in February 2014, it emerged 
that none other than Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson had quietly joined a lawsuit 
opposing fracking -related activities near his $5 million Texas home, claiming it 
would lower property values. "I would like to officially welcome Rex to the 
'Society of Citizens Really Enraged When Encircled by Drilling' (SCREWED)," 
wrote Jared Polis, a Democratic Congressman from Colorado, in a sardonic 
statement. "This select group of everyday citizens has been fighting for years to 
protect their property values, the health of their local communities, and the 
environment. We are thrilled to have the CEO of a major international oil and gas 


corporation join our quickly multiplying ranks." 
In 1776, Tom Paine wrote in his rabble-rousing pamphletCoraraon Sense, "It is 


the good fortune of many to live distant from the scene of sorrow." Well, the 
distance is closing, and soon enough no one will be safe from the sorrow of 
ecocide. In a way, the name of the company at the center of Greece's anti-mining 
movement says it all: Eldorado — a reference to the legendary "lost city of gold" 
that drove the conquistadors to some of their bloodiest massacres in the Americas. 
This kind of pillage used to be reserved for non-European countries, with the loot 
returned to the motherland in Europe. But as Eldorado's activities in northern 
Greece make clear, today the conquistadors are pillaging on their home turf as 

That may prove to have been a grave strategic error. As Montana-based 
environmental writer and activist Nick Engelfried puts it, "Every fracking well 
placed near a city's water supply and every coal train rolling through a small town 
gives some community a reason to hate fossil industries. And by failing to notice 


this, oil, gas and coal companies may be digging their political graves." 

None of this means that environmental impacts are suddenly evenly distributed. 
Historically marginalized people in the Global South, as well as communities of 
color in the Global North, are still at far greater risk of living downstream from a 
mine, next door to a refinery, or next to a pipeline, just as they are more vulnerable 
to the impacts of climate change. But in the era of extreme energy, there is no 
longer the illusion of discreet sacrifice zones anymore. As Deeohn Ferris, formerly 


with the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, aptly put it, "we're all 
in the same sinking boat, only people of color are closest to the hole." 52 

Another boundary breaker is, of course, climate change. Because while there are 
still plenty of people who are fortunate enough to live somewhere that is not (yet) 
directly threatened by the extreme energy frenzy, no one is exempt from the real- 
world impacts of increasingly extreme weather, or from the simmering 
psychological stress of knowing that we may very well grow old — and our young 
children may well grow up — in a climate significantly more treacherous than the 
one we currently enjoy. Like an oil spill that spreads from open water into 
wetlands, beaches, riverbeds, and down to the ocean floor, its toxins reverberating 
through the lifecycles of countless species, the sacrifice zones created by our 
collective fossil fuel dependence are creeping and spreading like great shadows 
over the earth. After two centuries of pretending that we could quarantine the 
collateral damage of this filthy habit, fobbing the risks off on others, the game is 
up, and we are all in the sacrifice zone now. 

Choked in Enemy Territory 

The fossil fuel industry's willingness to break the sacrifice bargain in order to reach 
previously off-limits pools of carbon has galvanized the new climate movement in 
several important ways. For one, the scope of many new extraction and 
transportation projects has created opportunities for people whose voices are 
traditionally shut out of the dominant conversation to form alliances with those 
who have significantly more social power. Tar sands pipelines have proven to be 
a particularly potent silo buster in this regard, and something of a gift to political 

Beginning in northern Alberta, in a region where the worst impacts are being 
felt by Indigenous people, and often ending in places where the worst health 
impacts are felt by urban communities of color, these pipelines pass a whole lot of 
other places in between. After all, the same piece of infrastructure will travel 
through multiple states or provinces (or both); through the watersheds of big cities 
and tiny towns; through farmlands and fishing rivers; through more lands claimed 
by Indigenous people and through land occupied by the upper middle class. And 
despite their huge differences, everyone along the route is up against a common 
threat and therefore are potential allies. In the 1990s, it was trade deals that brought 
huge and unlikely coalitions together; today it is fossil fuel infrastructure. 


Before the most recent push into extreme energy, Big Oil and Big Coal had 
grown accustomed to operating in regions where they are so economically 
omnipotent that they pretty much ran the show. In places like Louisiana, Alberta, 
and Kentucky — not to mention Nigeria and, until the Chavez era, Venezuela — the 
fossil fuel companies treat politicians as their unofficial PR wings and the 
judiciaries as their own personal legal departments. With so many jobs, and such 
a large percentage of the tax base on the line, regular people put up with an awful 
lot too. For instance, even after the Deep water Horizon disaster, many Louisianans 
wanted higher safety standards and a bigger share of the royalties from offshore 
oil wealth — but most didn't join calls for a moratorium on deepwater drilling, 
despite all they had suffered. 

This is the Catch-22 of the fossil fuel economy: precisely because these activities 
are so dirty and disruptive, they tend to weaken or even destroy other economic 
drivers: fish stocks are hurt by pollution, the scarred landscape becomes less 
attractive to tourists, and farmland becomes unhealthy. But rather than spark a 
popular backlash, this slow poisoning can end up strengthening the power of the 
fossil fuel companies because they end up being virtually the only game in town. 

As the extractive industries charge into territories previously considered out of 
bounds, however, they are suddenly finding themselves up against people who are 
far less compromised. In many of the new carbon frontiers, as well as in territories 
through which fossil fuel companies must move their product, the water is still 
relatively clean, the relationship to the land is still strong — and there are a great 
many people willing to fight very hard to protect ways of life that they view as 
inherently incompatible with toxic extraction. 

For instance, one of the natural gas industry's biggest strategic mistakes was 
deciding it wanted to frack in and around Ithaca, New York — a liberal college town 
with a vibrant economic localization movement and blessed with breathtaking 
gorges and waterfalls. Faced with a direct threat to its idyllic community, Ithaca 
became not just a hub for anti-fracking activism but a center for serious academic 
research into the unexplored risksdt's likely no coincidence that researchers at 
Cornell University, based in Ithaca, produced the game-changing study on 
methane emissions linked to fracking, whose findings became an indispensable 
tool for the global resistance movement. And it was the industry' s great misfortune 
that famed biologist and author Sandra Steingraber, a world-renowned expert on 
the link between industrial toxins and cancer, had recently taken up a post at Ithaca 
College. Steingraber threw herself into the fracking fight, providing expert 
testimony before countless audiences and helping to mobilize tens of thousands of 


New Yorkers. This work contributed to not just keeping the frackers out of Ithaca 
but to a total of nearly 180 fracking bans or moratoria adopted by cities and towns 


across the state. 

The industry badly miscalculated again when it began construction on a 12,260- 
horsepower compressor station carrying Pennsylvania's fracked gas smack in the 
middle of the town of Minisink, New York. Many homes were within half a mile 
of the facility, including one just 180 meters away. And the town's residents 
weren't the only ones whose health was threatened by the station. The surrounding 
area is prized agricultural land dotted with small family farms, orchards, and 
vineyards growing organic and artisanal produce for New York's farmer's markets 
and locavore restaurants. So Millennium Pipeline — the company behind the 
compressor — found itself up against not just a bunch of angry, local farmers but 
also a whole lot of angry New York City hipsters, celebrity chefs, and movie stars 
like Mark Ruffalo, calling not just for an end to fracking but for the state to shift 


to 100 percent renewables. 

And then there was the almost unfathomably stupid idea of trying to open up 
some of Europe's first major fracking operations nowhere other than the South of 
France. When residents of the Department of Var — known for its olives, figs, 
sheep, and for the famed beaches of Saint-Tropez — discovered that several of their 
communities were in line for gas fracking, they organized furiously. Economist 
and activist Maxime Combes describes scenes around southern France at the 
inception of the movement, where "the halls of the town-meetings in impacted 
communities were packed to overflowing, and very often, there were more 
participants in these meetings than inhabitants in the villages." Var, Combes wrote, 
would soon experience "the largest citizen's mobilization seen in the history of a 
Departmentthat is usually on the right of the political spectrum." As a result of the 
industry's French folly, it ended up not just losing the right to frack near the Riviera 
(at least for now), but in 2011 France became the first country to adopt a 


nationwide fracking ban. 

Even something as routine as getting heavy machinery up to northern Alberta to 
keep the tar sands mines and upgraders running has ignited new resistance 
movements. In keeping with the mammoth scale of everything associated with the 
largest industrial project on earth, the machines being transported, which are 
manufactured in South Korea, can be about as long and heavy as a Boeing 747, 
and some of the "heavy hauls," as they are called, are three stories high. The 
shipments are so large, in fact, that these behemoths cannot be trucked normally. 
Instead, oil companies like ExxonMobil have to load them onto specialty trailers 


that take up more than two lanes of highway, and are too high to make it under 
most standard overpasses ~ 

The only roads that meet the oil companies' needs are located in distinctly 
hostile territory. For instance, communities in Montana and Idaho have led a fierce 
multi-year campaign to prevent the rigs from traveling along the scenic but narrow 
Highway 12. They object to the human costs of having their critical roadway 
blocked for hours so that the huge machines can pass, as well as to the 
environmental risks of a load toppling on one of many hairpin turns and ending up 
in a stream or river (this is fly-fishing country and locals are passionate about their 
wild rivers). 

In October 2010, a small crew of local activists took me on a drive along the part 
of Highway 12 that the so-called big rigs would have to travel. We went past 
groves of cedar and Douglas fir and glowing, golden-tipped larch, past signs for 
moose crossings and under towering rock outcroppings. As we drove, with fall 
leaves rushing downstream in Lolo Creek next to the road, my guides scouted 
locations for an "action camp" they were planning. It would bring together anti- 
tar sands activists from Alberta, ranchers, and Indigenous tribes all along the 
proposed route of the Keystone XL pipeline, and locals interested in stopping the 
big rigs on Highway 12. They discussed a friend who had offered to set up a mobile 
kitchen and the logistics of camping in early winter. Marty Cobenais, then the 
pipeline campaigner for the Indigenous Environmental Network, explained how 
all the campaigns are connected. "If they can stop the rigs here then it affects the 
[production] capacity in the tar sands to get the oil to put in the pipelines." Then 
he smiles. "That's why we are building a Cowboys and Indians alliance."^ 

Following a long fight, the rigs were ultimately barred from this section of 
Highway 12 after the Nez Perce tribe and the conservation group Idaho Rivers 
United filed a joint lawsuit. "They made a huge mistake trying to go through 
western Montana and Idaho," Alexis Bonogofsky, a Billings, Montana, based goat 


rancher and activist, told me. "It's been fun to watch." 

An alternate route for the huge trucks was eventually found, this one taking them 
through eastern Oregon. Another bad move. When the first load made its way 
through the state in December 2013, it was stopped several times by activist 
lockdowns and blockades. Members of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla 
Indian Reservation, objecting to the loads crossing their ancestral lands, led a 
prayer ceremony near the second shipment in Pendleton, Oregon. And though local 
concerns about the safety of the big rigs were real, many participants were clear 
that they were primarily motivated by fears over what these machines were helping 


to do to our climate once they arrived at their destination. "This has gone too far," 
said one Umatilla blockader before she was arrested. "Our children are going to 
die from this." 

Indeed, the oil and coal industries are no doubt cursing the day that they ever 
encountered the Pacific Northwest — Oregon, Washington State, and British 
Columbia. There the sector has had to confront a powerful combination of 
resurgent Indigenous Nations, farmers, and fishers whose livelihoods depend on 
clean water and soil, and a great many relative newcomers who have chosen to live 
in that part of the world because of its natural beauty. It is also, significantly, a 
region where the local environmental movement never fully succumbed to the 
temptations of the corporate partnership model, and where there is a long and 
radical history of land-based direct action to stop clear-cut logging and dirty 

This has meant fierce opposition to tar sands pipelines, as we have seen. And 
the deep-seated ecological values of the Pacific Northwest have also become the 
bane of the U.S. coal industry in recent years. Between grassroots resistance to 
building new coal-fired plants, and pressure to shut down old ones, as well as the 
rapid rise of natural gas, the market for coal in the United States has collapsed. In 
a span of just four years, between 2008 and 2012, coal's share of U.S. electricity 
generation plummeted from about 50 percent to 37 percent. That means that if the 
industry is to have a future, it needs to ship U.S. coal to parts of the world that still 
want it in large quantities. That means Asia. (It's a strategy that global energy 
expert and author Michael T. Klare has compared to the one tobacco companies 
began to employ a few decades ago: "Just as health officials now condemn Big 
Tobacco's emphasis on cigarette sales to poor people in countries with inadequate 
health systems," he writes, "so someday Big Energy's new 'smoking' habit will 
be deemed a massive threat to human survival.") The problem for the coal 
companies is that U.S. ports along the Pacific Coast are not equipped for such large 
coal shipments, which means that the industry needs to build new terminals. It also 
needs to dramatically increase the number of trains carrying coal from the massive 


mines of the Powder River Basin, in Wyoming and Montana, to the Northwest. 

As with the tar sands pipelines and the heavy hauls, the greatest obstacle to the 
coal industry's plans to reach the sea has been the defiant refusal of residents of 
the Pacific Northwest to play along. Every community in Washington State and 
Oregon that was slated to become the new home of a coal export terminal rose up 
in protest, fueled by health concerns about coal dust, but also, once again, by larger 
concerns about the global impact of burning all that coal. 


This was expressed forcefully by KC Golden, who has helped to usher in many 
of the most visionary climate policies in Washington State, when he wrote: "The 
great Pacific Northwest is not a global coal depot, a pusher for fossil fuel addiction, 
a logistics hub for climate devastation. We're the last place on Earth that should 
settle for a tired old retread of the false choice between jobs and the environment. 
Coal export is fundamentally inconsistent with our vision and values. It's not just 
a slap in the face to 'green' groups. It's a moral disaster and an affront to our 
identity as a community."^ After all, what is the point of installing solar panels 
and rainwater barrels if they are going to be coated in coal dust? 

What these campaigns are discovering is that while it's next to impossible to 
win a direct fight against the fossil fuel companies on their home turf, the chances 
of victory greatly increase when the battleground extends into a territory where the 
industry is significantly weaker — places where nonextractive ways of life still 
flourish and where residents (and politicians) are less addicted to petro and coal 
dollars. And as the corroded tentacles of extreme energy reach out in all directions 
like a giant metal spider, the industry is pushing into a whole lot of those kinds of 

Something else is going on too. As resistance to the extractive industries gains 
ground along these far-flung limbs, it is starting to spread back to the body of 
carbon country — lending new courage to resist even in those places that the fossil 
fuel industry thought it had already conquered. 

The city of Richmond, California, across the bay from San Francisco, provides 
a glimpse of how quickly the political landscape can change. Predominantly 
African American and Latino, the city is a rough-edged, working-class pocket 
amidst the relentless tech-fuelled gentrification of the Bay Area. In Richmond, the 
big employer isn't Google, it's Chevron, whose huge refinery local residents blame 
for myriad health and safety problems, from elevated asthma rates to frequent 
accidents at the hulking facility (including a massive fire in 1999 that sent hundreds 
to hospital). And yet as the city's largest business and employer Chevron still had 
the power to call the shots. ~ 

No more. In 2009 community members successfully blocked a plan by Chevron 
to significantly expand its oil refinery, which could have allowed the plant to 
process heavier, dirtier crudes such as bitumen from the tar sands. A coalition of 
environmental justice groups challenged the expansion in the streets and in the 
courts, arguing that it would further pollute Richmond's air. In the end, a superior 
court ruled against Chevron, citing a wholly inadequate environmental impact 
report (which "fails as an informational document," the judge tartly remarked). 


Chevron appealed, but in 2010 it lost again. "This is a victory for the grassroots, 
and the people who have been suffering the health impacts of the refinery for the 
past 100 years," said Asian Pacific Environmental Network senior organizer Torm 

Richmond is not the only place dominated by Big Oil finding new reserves of 
courage to fight back. As the anti-tar sands movement spreads through North 
America and Europe, Indigenous communities in the belly of the beast — the ones 
who were raising the alarm about the dangers of the tar sands long before large 
environmental groups showed any interest in the issue — have also been 
emboldened to go further than ever. They've launched new lawsuits for violations 
of their land rights, with potentially grave ramifications for industry's access to 
carbon reserves, and delegations from deeply impacted First Nations communities 
are now constantly traveling the globe to alert more people to the devastation of 
their territories in the hopes that more arteries will be severed. One of these 
activists is Melina Laboucan-Massimo, a mesmerizing speaker with an understated 
courage who has spent much of her early thirties on the road, showing ugly slides 
of oil spills and ravaged landscapes and describing the silent war the oil and gas 
industry is waging on her people, the Lubicon Lake First Nation. "People are 
listening now," she told me, with tears in her eyes in the summer of 2013. "But it 
took a long time for people to get to that place." And this, she said, means that 


"there is hope. But it can be pretty dire sometimes in Alberta." 

What is clear is that fighting a giant extractive industry on your own can seem 
impossible, especially in a remote, sparsely populated location. But being part of 
a continent- wide, even global, movement that has the industry surrounded is a very 
different story. 

This networking and cross-pollinating is usually invisible — it's a mood, an 
energy that spreads from place to place. But for a brief time in September 2013, 
Blockadia's web of inspiration was made visible. Five carvers from the Lummi 
Nation in Washington State — the coastal tribe that is leading the fight against the 
largest proposed coal export terminal on a contested piece of the West Coast — 
showed up in Otter Creek, Montana. They had traveled roughly 1,300 kilometers 
from their home territory of mountainous temperate rainforest and craggy Pacific 
beaches to southeastern Montana's parched grasses and gentle hills, carrying with 
them a twenty-two-foot cedar totem pole, strapped to a flatbed truck. Otter Creek 
is the site of a planned massive coal mine and the Lummi visitors stood on that 
spot, which until recently had been written off as doomed, with more than a 
hundred people from the nearby Northern Cheyenne Reservation, as well as a 


group of local cattle ranchers. Together, they explored the ways in which they had 
been brought together by the ambitions of the carbon frenzy. 

If the Otter Creek mine were built in the Powder River Basin, it would 
compromise the water and air for the ranchers and the Northern Cheyenne, and the 
railway transporting the coal to the west coast could disturb the Cheyenne's ancient 
burial grounds. The export port, meanwhile, was set to be built on one of the 
Lummi's ancient burial grounds, and the coal would then be carried on barges that 
would disrupt their fishing areas and potentially threaten many livelihoods. 

The group stood in the valley by the banks of Otter Creek, under a sunny sky 
with hawks flying overhead, and blessed the totem pole with pipe smoke, vowing 
to fight together to keep the coal under their feet in the ground, and to keep both 
the railway and port from being built. The Lummi carvers then strapped the totem 
pole — which they had named Kwel hoy' or "We Draw the Line" — back onto the 
truck and took it on a sixteen-day journey to eight other communities, all of whom 
found themselves in the path of coal trains, big rigs, or tar sands pipelines and oil 
tankers. There were ceremonies at every stop, as the visitors and their hosts — both 
Native and non-Native — together drew connections among their various local 
battles against the extractive industries. The journey ended on Tsleil-Waututh land 
in North Vancouver, a pivotal community in the fight against increased oil tanker 
traffic. There the totem pole was permanently planted, looking out at the Pacific. 

While in Montana, Lummi master carver Jewell Praying Wolf James explained 
the purpose of the long journey: "We're concerned about protecting the 
environment as well as people's health all the way from the Powder River to the 
West Coast.. . . We're traveling across the country to help unify people's voices. It 
doesn't matter who you are, where you are at or what race you are — red, black, 


white or yellow — we're all in this together." 

This kind of alliance building among the various outposts of Blockadia has proven 
the movement's critics wrong time and time again. When the campaign against the 
Keystone XL pipeline began to gather momentum, several high-profile pundits 
insisted that it was all a waste of valuable time and energy. The oil would get out 
through another route regardless, and in the grand scheme of things the carbon it 
would carry represented little more than "a rounding error," as Jonathan Chait 
wrote in New York magazine. Better, they argued, to fight for a carbon tax, or for 
stronger EPA regulations, or for a reincarnation of cap-and-trade. New York 
Times columnist Joe Nocera went so far as to call the strategy "utterly 


boneheaded," and accused James Hansen, whose congressional testimony 
launched the modern climate movement, of "hurting the very cause he claims to 
care so much about." 

What we now know is that Keystone was always about much more than a 
pipeline. It was a new fighting spirit, and one that is contagious. One battle doesn't 
rob from another but rather causes battles to multiply, with each act of courage, 
and each victory, inspiring others to strengthen their resolve. 

The BP Factor: No Trust 

Beyond the fossil fuel industry's pace of expansion, and its forays into hostile 
territory, something else has propelled this movement forward in recent years. That 
is the widespread conviction that today's extractive activities are significantly 
higher risk than their predecessors: tar sands oil is unquestionably more disruptive 
and damaging to local ecosystems than conventional crude. Many believe it to be 
more dangerous to transport, and once spilled harder to clean up. A similar risk 
escalation is present in the shift to fracked oil and gas; in the shift from shallow to 
deepwater drilling (as the BP disaster showed); and most dramatically, in the move 
from warm water to Arctic drilling. Communities in the path of unconventional 
energy projects are convinced they are being asked to risk a hell of a lot, and much 
of the time they are being offered very little in return for their sacrifice, whether 
lasting jobs or significant royalties. 

Industry and government, for their part, have been extremely reluctant to 
acknowledge, let alone act upon, the stepped- up risks of extreme energy. For years, 
rail companies and officials have largely treated fracked oil from the Bakken as if 
it were the same as conventional crude — never mind the mounting evidence that it 
is significantly more volatile. (After announcing some mostly voluntary new safety 
measures beginning in early 2014 that were generally deemed inadequate, U.S. 
regulators claim to be in the process of developing a variety of tougher rules for 
oil-by-rail transport.)^ 

Similarly, government and industry are pushing the vast expansion of pipelines 
carrying oil from the Alberta tar sands despite a paucity of reliable, peer-reviewed 
research assessing whether dilbit, as diluted bitumen is called, is more prone to 
spill than conventional oil. But there is good reason for concern. As a joint 2011 
report published by the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Sierra Club, and 
others notes, "There are many indications that dilbit is significantly more corrosive 


to pipeline systems than conventional crude. For example, the Alberta pipeline 
system has had approximately sixteen times as many spills due to internal 
corrosion as the U.S. system. Yet, the safety and spill response standards used by 
the United States to regulate pipeline transport of bitumen are designed for 
conventional oil." 

Meanwhile, there are huge gaps in our knowledge about how spilled tar sands 
oil behaves in water. Over the last decade, there have been few studies published 
on the subject, and almost all were commissioned by the oil industry. However, a 
recent investigation by Environment Canada contained several disturbing findings, 
including that diluted tar sands oil sinks in saltwater "when battered by waves and 
mixed with sediments" (rather than floating on the ocean surface where it can be 
partially recovered) and that dispersants like those used during BP's Deepwater 
Horizon disaster have only "a limited effect," according to a report in The Globe 
and Mail. And there has been virtually no formal research at all on the particular 


risks of transporting tar sands oil via truck or rail. 

Similarly, large knowledge gaps exist in our understanding of the ecological and 
human health impact of the Alberta tar sands themselves, with their enormous 
open-pit mines, dump trucks that can reach up to five stories high, and roaring 
upgraders. In huge swaths of country surrounding Fort McMurray, ground zero of 
Canada's bitumen boom, the boreal forest — once a verdant, spongy bog — has been 
sucked dry of life. Every few minutes, the rancid air is punctured by the sound of 
booming cannons, meant to keep migrating birds from landing on the strange 


liquid silver surface of the huge tailing ponds. In Alberta the centuries-old war 
to control nature is not a metaphor; it is a very real war, complete with artillery. 

The oil companies, of course, say that they are using the safest methods of 
environmental protection; that the vast tailings ponds are secure; that water is still 
safe to drink (though workers stick to bottled); that the land will soon be 
"reclaimed" and returned to moose and black bears (if any are still around). And 
despite years of complaints from First Nations communities like the Athabasca 
Chipewyan, situated downstream from the mines along the Athabasca River, 
industry and government continued to insist that whatever organic contaminants 
are found in the river are "naturally occurring" — this is an oil-rich region after all. 

To anyone who has witnessed the scale of the tar sands operation, the assurances 
seem implausible. The government has yet to establish a genuinely independent, 
comprehensive system for monitoring mining impacts on the surrounding 
watersheds — in an industrial project whose total worth is approaching $500 
billion. After it announced a flashy new federal-provincial monitoring program in 


2012, the PR effort quickly spiraled out of its control. Referring to new findings 
from government and independent researchers, Bill Donahue, an environmental 
scientist with an advisory role in the program, said in February 2014 that "not only 
are those tailings ponds leaking, but it looks like it is flowing pretty much from 
those tailings ponds, through the ground and into the Athabasca River." He added: 
"So, there goes ... that message we've been hearing about. 'These tailings ponds 
are safe, they don't leak,' and so on." In a separate incident, a team of government 
scientists with Environment Canada corroborated outside research on widespread 
contamination of snow around tar sands operations, though the Harper 


administration did its best to keep the researchers from speaking to the press. 

And there are still no comprehensive studies on the impacts of this pollution on 
human health. On the contrary, some who have chosen to speak out have faced 
severe reprisals. Most notable had been the experience of John O'Connor, a gentle, 
gray-bearded family doctor who still speaks with an accent from his native Ireland. 
In 2003, O'Connor began to report that, while treating patients in Fort Chipewyan, 
he was coming across alarming numbers of cancers, including extremely rare and 
aggressive bile-duct malignancies. He quickly found himself under fire from 
federal health regulators, who filed several misconduct charges against him with 
the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Alberta (including raising "undue 
alarm"). "I don't know, personally, of any situation where a doctor has had to go 
through what I've gone through," O'Connor has said of the reputational smears 
and the years spent fighting the allegations. He was, eventually, cleared of all 
charges and a subsequent investigation of cancer rates vindicated several of his 



But before that happened the message to other doctors was sent: a report 
commissioned by the Alberta Energy Regulator recently found a "marked 
reluctance to speak out" in the medical community about the health impact of the 
tar sands, with several interviewees pointing to Dr. O'Connor's experience. 
("Physicians are quite frankly afraid to diagnose health conditions linked to the oil 
and gas industry," concluded the toxicologist who authored the report.) It has 
become routine, moreover, for the federal government to prevent senior 
environmental and climate scientists from speaking to journalists about any 
environmentally sensitive subjects. ("I'm available when media relations says I'm 


available," as one scientist told Postmedia.) 

And this is just one facet of what has become known as Prime Minister Stephen 
Harper's "war on science," with environmental monitoring budgets relentlessly 
slashed, covering everything from oil spills and industrial air pollution to the 


broader impacts of climate change. Since 2008, more than two thousand scientists 


have lost their jobs as a result of the cuts. 

This is, of course, a strategy. Only by systematically failing to conduct basic 
research, and silencing experts who are properly tasked to investigate health and 
environmental concerns, can industry and government continue to make absurdly 


upbeat claims about how all is under control in the oil patch. 

A similar willful blindness pervades the rapid spread of hydraulic fracking. For 
years the U.S. gas industry responded to reports of contaminated water wells by 
insisting that there was no scientific proof of any connection between fracking and 
the fact that residents living near gas drilling suddenly found they could set their 
tap water on fire. But the reason there was no evidence was because the industry 
had won an unprecedented exemption from federal monitoring and regulation — 
the so-called Halliburton Loophole, ushered in under the administration of George 
W. Bush. The loophole exempted most fracking from regulations of the Safe 
Drinking Water Act, helping to ensure that companies did not have to report any 
of the chemicals they were injecting underground to the Environmental Protection 
Agency, while shielding their use of the riskiest chemicals from EPA 


oversight. And if no one knows what you are putting into the ground, it's tough 
to make a definitive link when those toxins start coming out of people's taps. 

And yet as more evidence emerges, it is coming down hard on one side. A 
growing body of independent, peer-reviewed studies is building the case that 
fracking puts drinking water, including aquifers, at risk. In July 2013, for instance, 
a Duke University-led paper analyzed dozens of drinking water wells in 
northeastern Pennsylvania's Marcellus Shale region. The researchers found that 
the level of contamination from methane, ethane, and propane closely correlated 
with proximity to wells for shale gas. The industry response is that this is just 
natural leakage in regions rich in gas (the same line that tar sands operators in 
Alberta used when organic pollutants are found in the water there). But this study 
found that while methane was present in most of the sampled water wells, the 
concentration was six times higher in those within a kilometer of a gas well. In a 
study not yet published, the Duke team also analyzed water wells in Texas that had 
been previously declared safe. There, they found that contrary to assurances from 
government and industry, methane levels in many wells exceeded the minimum 
safety level set by the U.S. Geological Survey. 

The links between fracking and small earthquakes are also solidifying. In 2012, 
a University of Texas research scientist analyzed seismic activity from November 
2009 to September 201 1 over part of the huge Barnett Shale region in Texas, which 


lies under Fort Worth and parts of Dallas, and found the epicenters of sixty-seven 


small earthquakes. The most reliably located earthquakes were within two miles 
of an injection well. A July 2013 study in the Journal of Geophysical 
Research linked fracking-related waste injection to 109 small earthquakes that 
took place in a single year around Youngstown, Ohio, where an earthquake had 
not been previously recorded since monitoring began in the eighteenth century. 
The lead researcher of a similar study, published in Science, explained, "The fluids 


[in wastewater injection wells] are driving the faults to their tipping point." 

All of this illustrates what is so unsettling about unconventional extraction 
methods. Conventional oil and gas drilling, as well as underground coal mining, 
are destructive, to be sure. But comparatively speaking, they are the fossil fuel 
equivalent of the surgeon's scalpel — the carbon is extracted with relatively small 
incisions. But extreme, or unconventional extraction takes a sledgehammer to the 
whole vicinity. When the sledgehammer strikes the surface of the land — as in the 
case of mountaintop coal removal and open-pit tar sands — the violence can be seen 
with the naked eye. But with fracking, deepwater drilling, and underground ("in 
situ") tar sands extraction, the sledgehammer aims deep underground. At first this 
can seem more benign, since the impacts are less visible. Yet over and over again, 
we are catching glimpses of how badly we are breaking critical parts of our 
ecosystems that our best experts have no idea how to fix. 

Educated by Disaster 

In Blockadia outposts around the world, the initials "BP" act as a kind of mantra 
or invocation — shorthand for: whatever you do, take no extractive company at its 
word. The initials mean that passivity and trust in the face of assurances about 
world-class technology and cutting-edge safety measures are recipes for 
flammable water in your faucet, an oil slick in your backyard, or a train explosion 
down the street. 

Indeed, many Blockadia activists cite the 2010 BP disaster in the Gulf of Mexico 
as either their political awakening, or the moment they realized they absolutely had 
to win their various battles against extreme energy. The facts of that case are 
familiar but bear repeating. In what became the largest accidental marine oil spill 
in history, a state-of-the-art offshore oil rig exploded, killing eleven workers, while 
oil gushed from the ruptured Macondo wellhead about one and a half kilometers 
below the surface. What made the strongest impression on the horrified public was 


not the tar-coated tourist beaches in Florida or the oil-soaked pelicans in Louisiana. 
It was the harrowing combination of the oil giant's complete lack of preparedness 
for a blowout at those depths, as it scrambled for failed fix after failed fix, and the 
cluelessness of the government regulators and responders. Not only had regulators 
taken BP at its word about the supposed safety of the operation, but government 
agencies were so ill-equipped to deal with the scale of the disaster that they allowed 
BP — the perpetrator — to be in charge of the cleanup. As the world watched, the 
experts were clearly making it up as they went along. 

The investigations and lawsuits that followed revealed that a desire to save 
money had played an important role in creating the conditions for the accident. For 
instance, as Washington raced to reestablish lost credibility, an investigation by a 
U.S. Interior Department agency found "BP's cost or time saving decisions 
without considering contingencies and mitigation were contributing causes of the 
Macondo blowout." A report from the specially created Presidential Oil Spill 
Commission similarly found, "Whether purposeful or not, many of the decisions 
that BP, [and its contractors] Halliburton and Transocean, made that increased the 
risk of the Macondo blowout clearly saved those companies significant time (and 
money)." Jackie Savitz, a marine scientist and a vice president at the conservation 
group Oceana, was more direct: BP "put profits before precautions. They let dollar 


signs drive a culture of risk-taking that led to this unacceptable outcome." And 
any notion that this was a problem unique to BP was quickly dispelled when — 
only ten days after crews stopped the gush of oil into the Gulf of Mexico — an 
Enbridge pipeline burst in Michigan, causing the largest onshore oil spill in U.S. 
history. The pipe ruptured in a tributary of the Kalamazoo River and quickly 
contaminated more than fifty-five kilometers of waterways and wetlands with over 
one million gallons of oil, which left swans, muskrats, and turtles coated in black 
gunk. Homes were evacuated, local residents sickened, and onlookers watched "an 
alarming brown mist rise as river water the shade of a dark chocolate malt 


tumbled" over a local dam, according to one report. 

Like BP, it seemed that Enbridge had put profits before basic safety, while 
regulators slept at the switch. For instance, it turned out that Enbridge had known 
as early as 2005 that the section of pipeline that failed was corroding, and by 2009 
the company had identified 329 other defects in the line stretching through 
southern Michigan that were serious enough to require immediate repair under 
federal rules. The $40 billion company was granted an extension, and applied for 
a second one just ten days before the rupture — the same day an Enbridge VP told 
Congress that the company could mount an "almost instantaneous" response to a 


leak. In fact it took them seventeen hours to close the valve on the leaking pipeline. 
Three years after the initial disaster, about 180,000 gallons of oil were still sitting 

8 1 

on the bottom of the Kalamazoo. 

As in the Gulf, where BP had been drilling at depths unheard of just a few years 
earlier, the Kalamazoo disaster was also linked to the new era of extreme, higher- 
risk fossil fuel extraction. It took a while, however, before that became clear. For 
more than a week Enbridge did not share with the public the very pertinent fact 
that the substance that had leaked was not conventional crude; it was diluted 
bitumen, piped from the Alberta tar sands through Michigan. In fact in the early 
days, Enbridge' s then CEO, Patrick Daniel, flatly denied that the oil came from 
the tar sands and was later forced to backtrack. "What I indicated is that it was not 
what we have traditionally referred to as tar sands oil," Daniel claimed of bitumen 
thatcertainly had come from the tar sands. "If it is part of the same geological 


formation, then I bow to that expert opinion." 

In the fall of 2010, with many of these disasters still under way, Marty Cobenais 
of the Indigenous Environmental Network told me that the summer of spills was 
having a huge impact on communities in the path of new infrastructure projects, 
whether big rigs, pipelines, or tankers. "The oil industry always says there is 0 
percent chance of their oil hitting the shores, but with BP, we saw that it did. Their 
projections are always wrong," he said, adding, "They are always talking about 


'fail-proof but with Kalamazoo we saw they couldn't turn it off for hours." 

In other words, a great many people are no longer believing what the industry 
experts tell them; they are believing what they see. And over the last few years we 
have all seen a whole lot. Unforgettable images from the bizarre underwater "spill- 
cam" showing BP's oil gushing for three long months into the Gulf merge 
seamlessly with shocking footage of methane-laced tap water being set on fire in 
fracking country, which in turn meld with the grief of Quebec's Lac-Megantic after 
the horrific train explosion, with family members searching through the rubble for 
signs of their loved ones, which in turn fade to memories of 300,000 people in 
West Virginia being told they could not drink or bathe in their tap water for up to 
ten days after it had been contaminated by chemicals used in coal mining. And 
then there was the spectacle in 2012 of Shell's first foray into the highest-risk 
gambit of all: Arctic drilling. Highlights included one of Shell's giant drill rigs 
breaking free from its tow and running aground on the coast of Sitkalidak Island; 
another rig slipping its anchorage; and an oil spill containment dome being 
"crushed like a beer can," according to a U.S. Bureau of Safety and Environmental 


Enforcement official. 


If it seems like there are more such spills and accidents than before, that's 
because there are. According to a months-long investigation by EnergyWire, in 
2012 there were more than six thousand spills and "other mishaps" at onshore oil 
and gas sites in the U.S. "That's an average of more than 16 spills a day. And it's 
a significant increase since 2010. In the 12 states where comparable data were 
available, spills were up about 17 percent." There is also evidence that companies 
are doing a poorer job of cleaning up their messes: in an investigation of pipeline 
leaks of hazardous liquids (mostly petroleum-related), The New York Times found 
that in 2005 and 2006 pipeline operators reported "recovering more than 60 percent 
of liquids spilled"; between 2007 and 2010 "operators recovered less than a 

It's not just the engineering failures that are feeding widespread mistrust. As 
with BP and Enbridge, it's the constant stream of revelations about the role that 
greed — fully liberated by lax regulation and monitoring — seems to have played in 
stacking the deck. For example, Shell's Arctic rig ran aground when it braved 
fierce weather in an apparent attempt by the company to get out of Alaska in time 


to avoid paying additional taxes in the state. 

And Montreal, Maine & Atlantic (MM&A), the rail company behind the Lac- 
Megantic disaster, had received, one year before the accident, government 
permission to cut the number of staff on its trains to a single engineer. Until the 
1980s, trains like the one that derailed were generally staffed by five employees, 
all sharing the duties of operating safely. Now it's down to two — but for MM&A, 
that was still too much. According to one of the company's former railway 
workers, "It was all about cutting, cutting, cutting." Compounding these risks, 
according to a four-month Globe and Mail investigation, "companies often don't 
test their oil shipments for explosiveness before sending the trains." Little wonder 
then that within a year of Lac-Megantic, several more oil-laden trains went up in 
flames, including one in Casselton, North Dakota, one outside a village in 


northwest New Brunswick, and one in downtown Lynchburg, Virginia. 

In a sane world, this cluster of disasters, layered on top of the larger climate 
crisis, would have prompted significant political change. Caps and moratoriums 
would have been issued, and the shift away from extreme energy would have 
begun. The fact that nothing of the sort has happened, and that permits and leases 
are still being handed out for ever more dangerous extractive activities, is at least 
partly due to old-fashioned corruption — of both the legal and illegal varieties. 

A particularly lurid episode was revealed a year and a half before the BP disaster. 
An internal U.S. government report pronounced that what was then called the 


Minerals Management Service — the division of the U.S. Interior Department 
charged with collecting royalty payments from the oil and gas industry — suffered 
from "a culture of ethical failure." Not only had officials repeatedly accepted gifts 
from oil industry employees but, according to a report by the department's 
inspector general, several officials "frequently consumed alcohol at industry 
functions, had used cocaine and marijuana, and had sexual relationships with oil 
and gas company representatives." For a public that had long suspected that their 
public servants were in bed with the oil and gas lobby, this was pretty graphic 

^ 88 


Little wonder, then, that a 2013 Harris poll found that a paltry 4 percent of U.S. 
respondents believe oil companies are "honest and trustworthy" (only the tobacco 
industry fared worse). That same year, Gallup polled Americans about their 
opinions of twenty-five industries, including banking and government. No industry 
was more disliked than the oil and gas sector. A 2012 poll in Canada, meanwhile, 
asked Canadians to rate each of eleven groups on their trustworthiness on "energy 
issues." Oil and gas firms and energy executives took the bottom two slots, well 
below academics (the most trusted group), as well as environmental and 
community groups (which also rated positively). And in an EU-wide survey that 
same year, participants were polled on their impressions of eleven different sectors 
and asked if they "make efforts to behave responsibly towards society" — along 
with finance and banking, mining and oil and gas companies again came in last 



Hard realities like these have posed a challenge to the highly paid spin doctors 
employed by the extractive industries, the ones who had grown accustomed to 
being able to gloss over pretty much any controversy with sleek advertising 
showing blond children running through fields and multiracial actors in lab coats 
expressing concern about the environment. These days that doesn't cut it. No 
matter how many millions are spent on advertising campaigns touting the 
modernity of the tar sands or the cleanliness of natural gas, it's clear that a great 
many people are no longer being persuaded. And those proving most resistant are 
the ones whose opinions matter most: the people living on lands that the extractive 
companies need to access in order to keep their astronomical profits flowing. 


The Return of Precaution 

For decades, the environmental movement spoke the borrowed language of risk 
assessment, diligently working with partners in business and government to 
balance dangerous levels of pollution against the need for profit and economic 
growth. These assumptions about acceptable levels of risk were taken so deeply 
for granted that they formed the basis of the official climate change discussion. 
Action necessary to save humanity from the very real risk of climate chaos was 
coolly balanced against the risk such action would pose to GDPs, as if economic 
growth still has a meaning on a planet convulsing in serial disasters. 

But in Blockadia, risk assessment has been abandoned on the barricaded 
roadside, replaced by a resurgence of the precautionary principle — which holds 
that when human health and the environment are significantly at risk, perfect 
scientific certainty is not required before taking action. Moreover the burden of 
proving that a practice is safe should not be placed on the public that could be 

Blockadia is turning the tables, insisting that it is up to industry to prove that its 
methods are safe — and in the era of extreme energy that is something that simply 
cannot be done. To quote the biologist Sandra Steingraber, "Can you provide an 
example of an ecosystem on which was laid down a barrage of poisons, and terrible 


and unexpected consequences for human beings were not the result?" 

The fossil fuel companies, in short, are no longer dealing with those Big Green 
groups that can be silenced with a generous donation or a conscience-clearing 
carbon offset program. The communities they are facing are, for the most part, not 
looking to negotiate a better deal — whether in the form of local jobs, higher 
royalties, or better safety standards. More and more, these communities are simply 
saying "No." No to the pipeline. No to Arctic drilling. No to the coal and oil trains. 
No to the heavy hauls. No to the export terminal. No to fracking. And not just "Not 
in My Backyard" but, as the French anti-fracking activists say: Ni ici, ni ailleurs — 
neither here, nor elsewhere. In other words: no new carbon frontiers. 

Indeed the trusty slur NIMBY has completely lost its bite. As Wendell Berry 
says, borrowing words from E. M. Forster, conservation "turns on affection" — and 
if each of us loved our homeplace enough to defend it, there would be no ecological 


crisis, no place could ever be written off as a sacrifice zone. We would simply 
have no choice but to adopt nonpoisonous methods of meeting our needs. 

This sense of moral clarity, after so many decades of chummy green 
partnerships, is the real shock for the extractive industries. The climate movement 
has found its nonnegotiables. This fortitude is not just building a large and militant 


resistance to the companies most responsible for the climate crisis. As we will see 
in the next chapter, it is also delivering some of the most significant victories the 
environmental movement has seen in decades. 

The villagers insist their struggle is committed to nonviolence and blame outsiders or even provocateurs 
for the arson. 

~ Maxime Combes, a French economist and anti-fracking activist, observes, "The scene in the film where 
landowner Mike Markham ignites gas from a water faucet in his home with a cigarette lighter due to natural 
gas exploration in the area has had a far greater impact against fracking than any report or speech." 

~ In 2008, 1,600 ducks died after they landed in these dangerous waters during a storm; another incident 
led to the deaths of over five hundred more two years later. (A biologist investigating the later incident for 
the Alberta government explained that it was not industry's fault that the ducks were forced to land during 
a violent storm — then pointed out, without apparent irony, that such storms will become more frequent as 
a result of climate change.) 

And their claims are indeed absurd: according to an independent study published in 2014 in 
the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, for example, emissions of potentially toxic pollutants 
from the tar sands "are two to three orders -of-magnitude larger than those reported" by companies to their 
regulators. The discrepancy is evident in actual measurements of these pollutants in the air near tar sands 
activities. The study's coauthor, Frank Wania, an environmental scientist at the University of Toronto, 
described the official estimates as "inadequate and incomplete" and made the commonsense observation, 
"Only with a complete and accurate account of the emissions is it actually possible to make a meaningful 
assessment of the environmental impact and of the risk to human health." 




Democracy, Divestment, and the Wins So Far 

"I believe that the more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders 
and realities of the universe about us, the less taste we shall have for 

-Rachel Carson, 1954 1 
"What good is a mountain just to have a mountain?" 


-Jason Bostic, Vice President of the West Virginia Coal Association, 201 1 

On a drizzly British Columbia day in April 2012, a twenty- seven- seat turboprop 
plane landed at the Bella Bella airport, which consists of a single landing strip 
leading to a clapboard building. The passengers descending from the blue-and- 
white Pacific Coastal aircraft included the three members of a review panel created 
by the Canadian government. They had made the 480-kilometer journey from 
Vancouver to this remote island community, a place of deep fjords and lush 
evergreen forests reaching to the sea, to hold public hearings about one of the most 
contentious new pieces of fossil fuel infrastructure in North America: Enbridge' s 
proposed Northern Gateway pipeline. 

Bella Bella is not directly on the oil pipeline's route (that is 200 kilometers even 
further north). However, the Pacific ocean waters that are its front yard are in the 
treacherous path of the oil tankers that the pipeline would load up with diluted tar 
sands oil — up to 75 percent more oil in some supertankers than theExxon 
Valdez was carrying in 1989 when it spilled in Alaska's Prince William Sound, 


devastating marine life and fisheries across the region." A spill in these waters 
could be even more damaging, since the remoteness would likely make reaching 
an accident site difficult, especially during winter storms. 


The appointed members of the Joint Review Panel — one woman and two men, 
aided by support staff — had been holding hearings about the pipeline impacts for 
months now and would eventually present the federal government with their 
recommendation on whether the project should go ahead. Bella Bella, whose 
population is roughly 90 percent Heiltsuk First Nation, was more than ready for 

A line of Heiltsuk hereditary chiefs waited on the tarmac, all dressed in their full 
regalia: robes embroidered with eagles, salmon, orcas, and other creatures of these 
seas and skies; headdresses adorned with animal masks and long trails of white 
ermine fur, as well as woven cedar basket hats. They greeted the visitors with a 
welcome dance, noisemakers shaking in their hands and rattling from the aprons 
of their robes, while a line of drummers and singers backed them up. On the other 
side of the chain link fence was a large crowd of demonstrators carrying anti- 
pipeline signs and canoe paddles. 

Standing a respectful half step behind the chiefs was Jess Housty, a slight 
twenty-five-year-old woman who had helped to galvanize the community's 
engagement with the panel (and would soon be elected to the Heiltsuk Tribal 
Council as its youngest member). An accomplished poet who created Bella Bella's 
first and only library while she was still a teenager, Housty described the scene at 
the airport as "the culmination of a huge planning effort driven by our whole 

And it was young people who had led the way, turning the local school into a 
hub of organizing. Students had worked for months in preparation for the hearings. 
They researched the history of pipeline and tanker spills, including the 2010 
disaster on the Kalamazoo River, noting that Enbridge, the company responsible, 
was the same one pushing the Northern Gateway pipeline. The teens were also 
keenly interested in the Exxon Valdez disaster since it took place in a northern 
landscape similar to their own. As a community built around fishing and other 
ocean harvesting, they were alarmed to learn about how the salmon of Prince 
William Sound had become sick in the years after the spill, and how herring stocks 
had completely collapsed (they are still not fully recovered, more than two decades 

The students contemplated what such a spill would mean on their coast. If the 
sockeye salmon, a keystone species, were threatened, it would have a cascade 
effect — since they feed the killer whales and white-sided dolphins whose dorsal 
fins regularly pierce the water's surface in nearby bays, as well as the seals and sea 
lions that bark and sunbathe on the rocky outcroppings. And when the fish return 


to the freshwater rivers and streams to spawn, they feed the eagles, the black bears, 
the grizzlies, and the wolves, whose waste then provides the nutrients to the lichen 
that line the streams and riverbanks, as well as to the great cedars and Douglas firs 
that tower over the temperate rainforest. It' s the salmon that connect the streams 
to the rivers, the river to the sea, the sea back to the forests. Endanger salmon and 
you endanger the entire ecosystem that depends on them, including the Heiltsuk 
people whose ancient culture and modern livelihood is inseparable from this 
intricate web of life. 

Bella Bella's students wrote essays on these themes, prepared to present 
testimony, and painted signs to greet the panel members. Some went on a forty- 
eight-hour hunger strike to dramatize the stakes of losing their food source. 
Teachers observed that no issue had ever engaged the community's young people 
like this — some even noticed a decline in depression and drug use. That's a very 
big deal in a place that not long ago suffered from a youth suicide epidemic, the 
legacy of scarring colonial policies, including generations of children — the great- 
grandparents, grandparents, and sometimes the parents of today's teens and young 
adults — being taken from their families and placed in church-run residential 
schools where abuse was rampant. 

Housty recalls, "As I stood behind our chiefs [on the tarmac], I remember 
thinking how the community had grown around the issue from the first moment 
we heard rumblings around Enbridge Northern Gateway. The momentum had built 
and it was strong. As a community, we were prepared to stand up with dignity and 
integrity to be witnesses for the lands and waters that sustained our ancestors — 
that sustain us — that we believe should sustain our future generations." 

After the dance, the panel members ducked into a white minivan that took them 
on the five-minute drive into town. The road was lined with hundreds of residents, 
including many children, holding their handmade poster-board signs. "Oil Is 
Death," "We Have the Moral Right to Say No," "Keep Our Oceans Blue," "Our 
Way of Life Cannot Be Bought!," "I Can't Drink Oil." Some held drawings of 
orcas, salmon, even kelp. Many of the signs simply said: "No Tankers." One man 
thought the panel members weren't bothering to look out the window, so he 
thumped the side of the van as it passed and held his sign up to the glass. 

By some counts, a third of Bella Bella's 1,095 residents were on the street that 
day, one of the largest demonstrations in the community's history. 5 Others 
participated in different ways: by harvesting and preparing food for the evening 
feast, where the panel members were to be honored guests. It was part of the 
Heiltsuk' s tradition of hospitality but it was also a way to show the visitors the 


foods that would be at risk if just one of those supertankers were to run into trouble. 
Salmon, herring roe, halibut, oolichan, crab, and prawns were all on the menu. 

Similar scenes had played out everywhere the panel traveled in British 
Columbia: cities and towns came out in droves, voicing unanimous or near 
unanimous opposition to the project. Usually First Nations were front and center, 
reflecting the fact that the province is home to what is arguably the most powerful 
Indigenous land rights movement in North America, evidenced by the fact that 
roughly 80 percent of its land remains "unceded," which means that it has never 
been relinquished under any treaty nor has it ever been claimed by the Canadian 
state through an act of war. 

Yet there was clearly something about the passion of Bella Bella's greeting that 
unnerved the panel members. The visitors refused the invitation to the feast that 
evening, and Chief Councilor Marilyn Slett was put in the unenviable position of 
having to take the microphone and share a letter she had just received from the 
Joint Review Panel. It stated that the pipeline hearings for which the assembled 
crowd had all been preparing for months were canceled. Apparently the 
demonstration on the way from the airport had made the visitors feel unsafe and, 
the letter stated, "The Panel cannot be in a situation where it is unsure that the 
crowd will be peaceful." It later emerged that the sound of that single man 
thumping the side of the van had somehow been mistaken for gunfire. (Police in 
attendance asserted that the demonstrations had been nonviolent and that there was 
never any security threat.) 2 

Housty said the news of the cancellation had a "physical impact. We had done 
everything according to our teachings, and to feel the back of someone's hand 
could hardly have been more of an insult." In the end, the hearings went ahead but 
a day and a half of promised meeting time was lost, depriving many community 


members of their hope of being heard in person. 

What shocked many of Bella Bella's residents was not just the weird and false 
accusation of violence; it was the extent to which the entire spirit of their actions 
seemed to have been misunderstood. When the panel members looked out the van 
window, they evidently saw little more than a stereotypical mob of angry Indians, 
wanting to vent their hatred on anyone associated with the pipeline. But to the 
people on the other side of the glass, holding their paddles and fish paintings, the 
demonstration had not primarily been about anger or hatred. It had been about 
love — a collective and deeply felt expression of love for their breathtaking part of 
the world. 


As the young people of this community explained when they finally got the 
chance, their health and identity were inextricably bound up in their ability to 
follow in the footsteps of their forebears — fishing and paddling in the same waters, 
collecting kelp in the same tidal zones in the outer coastal islands, hunting in the 
same forests, and collecting medicines in the same meadows. Which is why 
Northern Gateway was seen not simply as a threat to the local fishery but as the 
possible undoing of all this intergenerational healing work. And therefore as 
another wave of colonial violence. 

When Jess Housty testified before the Enbridge Gateway review panel (she had 
to travel for a full day to Terrace, British Columbia to do it), she put this in 
unequivocal terms. 

When my children are born, I want them to be born into a world where hope 
and transformation are possible. I want them to be born into a world where 
stories still have power. I want them to grow up able to be Heiltsuk in every 
sense of the word. To practice the customs and understand the identity that 
has made our people strong for hundreds of generations. 

That cannot happen if we do not sustain the integrity of our territory, the 
lands and waters, and the stewardship practices that link our people to the 
landscape. On behalf of the young people in my community, I respectfully 
disagree with the notion that there is any compensation to be made for the 


loss of our identity, for the loss of our right to be Heiltsuk. 

The power of this ferocious love is what the resource companies and their 
advocates in government inevitably underestimate, precisely because no amount 
of money can extinguish it. When what is being fought for is an identity, a culture, 
a beloved place that people are determined to pass on to their grandchildren, and 
that their ancestors may have paid for with great sacrifice, there is nothing 
companies can offer as a bargaining chip. No safety pledge will assuage; no bribe 
will be big enough. And though this kind of connection to place is surely strongest 
in Indigenous communities where the ties to the land go back thousands of years, 
it is in fact Blockadia's defining feature. 

I saw it shine brightly in Halkidiki, Greece, in the struggle against the gold mine. 
There, a young mother named Melachrini Liakou — one of the movement's most 
tireless leaders — told me with unswerving confidence that the difference between 
the way she saw the land, as a fourth-generation farmer, and the way the mining 
company saw the same patch of earth, was that, "I am a part of the land. I respect 
it, I love it and I don't treat it as a useless object, as if I want to take something out 
of it and then the rest will be waste. Because I want to live here this year, next year, 


and to hand it down to the generations to come. In contrast, Eldorado, and any 
other mining company, they want to devour the land, to plunder it, to take away 
what is most precious for themselves."^ And then they would leave behind, she 
said, "a huge chemical bomb for all mankind and nature." 

Alexis Bonogofsky (who had told me what a "huge mistake" the oil companies 
made in trying to bring their big rigs along Highway 12) speaks in similar terms 
about the fight to protect southeastern Montana from mining companies like Arch 
Coal. But for Bonogofsky, a thirty-three-year-old goat rancher and 
environmentalist who does yoga in her spare time, it's less about farming than deer 
hunting. "It sounds ridiculous but there's this one spot where I can sit on the 
sandstone rock and you know that the mule deer are coming up and migrating 
through, you just watch these huge herds come through, and you know that they've 
been doing that for thousands and thousands of years. And you sit there and you 
feel connected to that. And sometimes it's almost like you can feel the earth 
breathe." She adds: "That connection to this place and the love that people have 
for it, that's what Arch Coal doesn't get. They underestimate that. They don't 
understand it so they disregard it. And that's what in the end will save that place. 
Is not the hatred of the coal companies, or anger, but love will save that 
place. "~ This is also what makes Blockadia conflicts so intensely polarized. 
Because the culture of fossil fuel extraction is — by both necessity and design — 
one of extreme rootlessness. The workforce of big rig drivers, pipefitters, miners, 
and engineers is, on the whole, highly mobile, moving from one worksite to the 
next and very often living in the now notorious "man camps" — self-enclosed 
army-base-style mobile communities that serve every need from gyms to movie 
theaters (often with an underground economy in prostitution). 

Even in places like Gillette, Wyoming, or Fort McMurray, Alberta, where 
extractive workers may stay for decades and raise their kids, the culture remains 
one of transience. Almost invariably, workers plan to leave these blighted places 
as soon as they have saved enough money — enough to pay off student loans, to 
buy a house for their families back home, or, for the really big dreamers, enough 
to retire. And with so few well-paying blue-collar jobs left, these extraction jobs 
are often the only route out of debt and poverty. It' s telling that tar sands workers 
often discuss their time in northern Alberta as if it were less a job than a highly 
lucrative jail term: there's "the three-year plan" (save $200,000, then leave); "the 
five-year-plan" (put away half a million); "the ten-year-plan" (make a million and 
retire at thirty-five). Whatever the details (and however unrealistic, given how 
much money disappears in the city's notorious party scene), the plan is always 


pretty much the same: tough it out in Fort Mac (or Fort McMoney as it is often 
called), then get the hell out and begin your real life. In one survey, 98 percent of 


respondents in the tar sands area said they planned to retire somewhere else.^ 

There is a real sadness to many of these choices: beneath the bravado of the bar 
scene are sky-high divorce rates due to prolonged separations and intense work 
stress, soaring levels of addiction, and a great many people wishing to be anywhere 
but where they are. This kind of disassociation is part of what makes it possible 
for decent people to inflict the scale of damage to the land that extreme energy 
demands. A coalfield worker in Gillette, Wyoming, for instance, told me that to 
get through his workdays, he had trained himself to think of the Powder River 


Basin as "another planet." (The moonscape left behind by strip mining no doubt 
made this mental trick easier). 

These are perfectly understandable survival strategies — but when the extractive 
industry's culture of structural transience bumps up against a group of deeply 
rooted people with an intense love of their homeplace and a determination to 
protect it, the effect can be explosive. 

Love and Water 

When these very different worlds collide, one of the things that seems to happen 
is that, as in Bella Bella, communities begin to cherish what they have — and what 
they stand to lose — even more than before the extractive threat arrived. This is 
particularly striking because many of the people waging the fiercest anti-extraction 
battles are, at least by traditional measures, poor. But they are still determined to 
defend a richness that our economy has not figured out how to count. "Our kitchens 
are filled with homemade jams and preserves, sacks of nuts, crates of honey and 
cheese, all produced by us," Doina Dediu, a Romanian villager protesting fracking, 
told a reporter. "We are not even that poor. Maybe we don't have money, but we 


have clean water and we are healthy and we just want to be left alone." 

So often these battles seem to come to this stark choice: water vs. gas. Water vs. 
oil. Water vs. coal. In fact, what has emerged in the movement against extreme 
extraction is less an anti-fossil fuels movement than a pro-water movement. 

I was first struck by this in December 201 1 when I attended a signing ceremony 
for the Save the Fraser Declaration, the historic Indigenous people's declaration 
pledging to prevent the Northern Gateway pipeline and any other tar sands project 
of its kind from accessing British Columbia territory. More than 130 First Nations 


have signed, along with many nonlndigenous endorsers. The ceremony was held 
at the Vancouver Public Library, with several chiefs present to add their names. 
Among those addressing the bank of cameras that day was Marilyn Baptiste, then 
elected chief of Xeni Gwet'in, one of the communities of the Tsilhqot'in First 
Nation. She introduced herself, her people, and their stake in the fight by naming 
interconnected bodies of water: "We are at the headwaters of Chilko, which is one 
of the largest wild salmon runs, that is also part of the Taseko, that drains into the 
Chilko, the Chilko into the Chilcotin, and into the Fraser. It's common sense for 
all of our people to join together." 

The point of drawing this liquid map was clear to all present: of course all of 
these different nations and groups would join together to fight the threat of an oil 
spill — they are all already united by water; by the lakes and rivers, streams and 
oceans that drain into one another. And in British Columbia, the living connection 
among all of these waterways is the salmon, that remarkably versatile traveler, 
which moves through fresh- and saltwater and back again during its life cycle. 
That's why the declaration that was being signed was not called the "Stop the 
Tankers and Pipelines Declaration" but rather the "Save the Fraser Declaration" — 
the Fraser, at almost 1,400 kilometers, being the longest river in B.C. and home to 
its most productive salmon fishery. As the declaration states: "A threat to the 
Fraser and its headwaters is a threat to all who depend on its health. We will not 
allow our fish, animals, plants, people, and ways of life to be placed at risk.. . . We 
will not allow the proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipelines, or similar Tar 
Sands projects, to cross our lands, territories and watersheds, or the ocean 
migration routes of Fraser River salmon." 

If the tar sands pipeline threatens to become an artery of death, carrying poison 
across an estimated one thousand waterways, then these interconnected bodies of 
water that Chief Baptiste was mapping are arteries of life, flowing together to bind 


all of these disparate communities in common purpose. 

The duty to protect water doesn't just unite opposition to this one pipeline; it is 
the animating force behind every single movement fighting extreme extraction. 
Whether deepwater drilling, fracking, or mining; whether pipelines, big rigs, or 
export terminals, communities are terrified about what these activities will do to 
their water systems. This fear is what binds together the southeastern Montana 
cattle ranchers with the Northern Cheyenne with the Washington State 
communities fighting coal trains and export terminals. Fear of contaminated 
drinking water is what kick-started the anti-fracking movement (and when a 
proposal surfaced that would allow the drilling of roughly twenty thousand 


fracking wells in the Delaware River Basin — the source of freshwater for fifteen 
million Americans — it is what kicked the movement squarely into the U.S. 

The movement against Keystone XL would, similarly, never have resonated as 
powerfully as it did had TransCanada not made the inflammatory decision to route 
the pipeline through the Ogallala Aquifer — a vast underground source of 
freshwater beneath the Great Plains that provides drinking water to approximately 
two million people and supplies roughly 30 percent of the country's irrigation 
groundwater. 1 ^ 

In addition to the contamination threats, almost all these extractive projects also 
stand out simply for how much water they require. For instance, it takes 2.3 barrels 
of water to produce a single barrel of oil from tar sands mining — much more than 
the 0.1 to 0.3 barrels of water needed for each barrel of conventional crude. Which 
is why the tar sands mines and upgrading plants are surrounded by those giant 
tailings "ponds" visible from space. Fracking for both shale gas and "tight oil" 
similarly requires far more water than conventional drilling and is much more 
water-intensive than the fracking methods used in the 1990s. According to a 2012 
study, modern fracking "events" (as they are called) use an average of five million 
gallons of water — "70 to 300 times the amount of fluid used in traditional 
fracking." Once used, much of this water is radioactive and toxic. In 2012, the 
industry created 280 billion gallons of such wastewater in the U.S. alone — 
"enough to flood all of Washington DC beneath a 22ft deep toxic lagoon," as The 
Guardian noted ~ 

In other words, extreme energy demands that we destroy a whole lot of the 
essential substance we need to survive — water — just to keep extracting more of 
the very substances threatening our survival and that we can power our lives 

This is coming, moreover, at a time when freshwater sources are imperiled 
around the world. Indeed, the water used in extraction operations often comes from 
aquifers that are already depleted from years of serial droughts, as is the case in 
southern California, where prospectors are eyeing the enormous Monterey Shale, 
and in Texas, where fracking has skyrocketed in recent years. Meanwhile, the 
Karoo — an arid and spectacular region of South Africa that Shell is planning to 
frack — literally translates as "land of the great thirst." Which helps explain why 
Oom Johannes Willemse, a local spiritual leader, says, "Water is so holy. If you 
don't have water, you don't have anything worth living for." He adds, "I will fight 


to the death. I won't allow this water to be destroyed." 


The fight against pollution and climate change can seem abstract at times; but 
wherever they live, people will fight for their water. Even die for it. 

"Can we live without water?" the anti-fracking farmers chant in Pungesti, 


"Can we live without Chevron?" 

These truths emerge not out of an abstract theory about "the commons" but out 
of lived experience. Growing in strength and connecting communities in all parts 
of the world, they speak to something deep and unsettled in many of us. We know 
that we are trapped within an economic system that has it backward; it behaves as 
if there is no end to what is actually finite (clean water, fossil fuels, and the 
atmospheric space to absorb their emissions) while insisting that there are strict 
and immovable limits to what is actually quite flexible: the financial resources that 
human institutions manufacture, and that, if imagined differently, could build the 
kind of caring society we need. Anni Vassiliou, a youth worker who is part of the 
struggle against the Eldorado gold mine in Greece, describes this as living in "an 
upside down world. We are in danger of more and more floods. We are in danger 
of never, here in Greece, never experiencing spring and fall again. And they're 
telling us that we are in danger of exiting the Euro. How crazy is that?"^ Put 
another way, a broken bank is a crisis we can fix; a broken Arctic we cannot. 

Early Wins 

It's not yet clear which side will win many of the struggles outlined in these 
pages — only that the companies in the crosshairs are up against far more than they 
bargained for. There have, however, already been some solid victories, too many 
to fully catalogue here. 

For instance, activists have won fracking bans or moratoria in dozens of cities 
and towns and in much larger territories too. Alongside France, countries with 
moratoria include Bulgaria, the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, and South Africa 
(though South Africa has since lifted the ban). Moratoria or bans are also in place 
in the states and provinces of Vermont, Quebec, as well as Newfoundland and 
Labrador (as of early 2014, New York's contentious moratorium still held but it 
looked shaky). This track record is all the more remarkable considering that so 
much local anti-fracking activism has not received foundation funding, and is 


instead financed the old-fashioned way: by passing the hat at community events 
and with countless volunteer hours. 

And some victories against fossil fuel extraction receive almost no media 
attention, but are significant nonetheless. Like the fact that in 2010 Costa Rica 
passed a landmark law banning new open-pit mining projects anywhere in the 
country. Or that in 2012, the residents of the Colombian archipelago of San 
Andres, Providencia, and Santa Catalina successfully fended off government plans 
to open the waters around their beautiful islands to offshore oil drilling. The region 
is home to one of the largest coral reefs in the Western Hemisphere and as one 
account of the victory puts it, what was established was the fact that coral is "more 


important than oil." 

And then there is the wave of global victories against coal. Under mounting 
pressure, the World Bank as well as other large international funders have 
announced that they will no longer offer financing to coal projects except in 
exceptional circumstances, which could turn out to be a severe blow to the industry 
if other financiers follow suit. In Gerze, Turkey, a major proposed coal plant on 
the Black Sea was scuttled under community pressure. The Sierra Club's hugely 
successful "Beyond Coal" campaign has, along with dozens of local partner 
organizations, succeeded in retiring 170 coal plants in the United States and 


prevented over 180 proposed plants since 2002. 

The campaign to block coal export terminals in the Pacific Northwest has 
similarly moved from strength to strength. Three of the planned terminals — one 
near Clatskanie, Oregon, another in Coos Bay, Oregon, and another in Hoquiam, 
Washington — have already been nixed, the result of forceful community activism, 
much of it organized by the Power Past Coal coalition. Several port proposals are 
still pending but resistance is fierce, particularly to the largest of the bunch, just 
outside Bellingham, Washington. "It's not a fun time to be in the coal industry 
these days," said Nick Carter, president and chief operating officer of the U.S. coal 
company Natural Resource Partners. "It's not much fun to get up every day, go to 


work and spend your time fighting your own government." 

In comparison, the actions against the various tar sands pipelines have not yet 
won any clear victories, only a series of very long delays. But those delays matter 
a great deal because they have placed a question mark over the capacity of 
Alberta's oil patch to make good on its growth projections. And if there is one 
thing billion-dollar investors hate, it' s political uncertainty. If Alberta' s landlocked 
oil patch can't guarantee its investors a reliable route to the sea where bitumen can 
be loaded onto tankers, then, as the province's former minister of energy Ron 


Liepert put it, "the investment is going to dry up." The head of one of the largest 
oil companies in the tar sands confirmed this in January 2014. "If there were no 
more pipeline expansions, I would have to slow down," Cenovus CEO Brian 
Ferguson said. He clearly considered this some kind of threat, but from a climate 


perspective it sounded like the best news in years. 

Even if these tactics succeed only in slowing expansion plans, the delays will 
buy time for clean energy sources to increase their market share and to be seen as 
more viable alternatives, weakening the power of the fossil fuel lobby. And, even 
more significantly, the delays give residents of the largest markets in Asia a 
window of opportunity to strengthen their own demands for a clean energy 

Already, these demands are spreading so rapidly that it isn't at all clear how long 
the market for new coal-fired plants and extra-dirty gasoline in Asia will continue 
to expand. In India, Blockadia-style uprisings have been on full display in recent 
years, with people's movements against coal-fired power plants significantly 
slowing the rush to dirty energy in some regions. The southeastern state of Andhra 
Pradesh has been the site of several iconic struggles, like one in the village of 
Kakarapalli, surrounded by rice patties and coconut groves, where local residents 
can be seen staffing a semipermanent checkpoint under a baobab tree at the 
entrance to town. The encampment chokes off the only road leading to a half-built 
power plant where construction was halted amidst protests in 2011. In nearby 
Sompeta, another power plant proposal was stopped by a breakthrough alliance of 
urban middle-class professionals and subsistence farmers and fishers who united 
to protect the nearby wetlands. After police charged a crowd of protesters in 2010, 
shooting dead at least two people, a national uproar forced the National 


Environment Appellate Authority to revoke the permit for the project. The 
community remains vigilant, with a daily rotating hunger strike entering its 1,500th 
day at the beginning of 2014. 

China, meanwhile, is in the midst of a very public and emotional debate about 
its crisis levels of urban air pollution, in large part the result of the country's 
massive reliance on coal. There have been surprisingly large and militant protests 
against the construction of new coal-fired plants, most spectacularly in Haimen, a 
small city in Guangdong Province. In December 201 1, as many as thirty thousand 
residents surrounded a government building and blocked a highway to protest 
plans to expand a coal-fired power plant. Citing concerns about cancer and other 
health problems blamed on the existing plant, the demonstrators withstood days of 
attacks by police, including tear gas and reported beatings with batons. They were 


there to send the message, as one protester put it, that, "This is going to affect our 


future generations. They still need to live." The plant expansion was suspended. 

Chinese peasants who rely on traditional subsistence activities like agriculture 
and fishing have a history of militant uprisings against industrial projects that cause 
displacement and disease, whether toxic factories, highways, or mega-dams. Very 
often these actions attract severe state repression, including deaths in custody of 
protest leaders. The projects usually go ahead regardless of the opposition, though 
there have been some notable successes. 

What has changed in China in recent years — and what is of paramount concern 
to the ruling party — is that the country's elites, the wealthy winners in China's 
embrace of full-throttle capitalism, are increasingly distressed by the costs of 
industrialization. Indeed, Li Bo, who heads Friends of Nature, the oldest 
environmental organization in China, describes urban air pollution as "a superman 
for Chinese environment issues," laughing at the irony of an environmentalist 
having "to thank smog." The reason, he explains, is that the elites had been able to 
insulate themselves from previous environmental threats, like baby milk and water 
contamination, because "the rich, the powerful, have special channels of delivery, 
safer products [delivered] to their doorsteps." But no matter how rich you are, there 
is no way to hide from the "blanket" of toxic air. "Nobody can do anything for 


special [air] delivery," he says. "And that's the beauty of it." 

To put the health crisis in perspective, the World Health Organization sets the 
guideline for the safe presence of fine particles of dangerous air pollutants (known 
as PM25) at 25 micrograms or less per cubic meter; 250 is considered hazardous by 
the U.S. government. In January 2014, in Beijing, levels of these carcinogens hit 
671. The ubiquitous paper masks haven't been enough to prevent outbreaks of 
respiratory illness, or to protect children as young as eight from being diagnosed 
with lung cancer. Shanghai, meanwhile, has introduced an emergency protocol in 
which kindergartens and elementary schools are automatically shut down and all 
large-scale outdoor gatherings like concerts and soccer games are canceled when 
the levels of particulate matter in the air top 450 micrograms per cubic meter. No 
wonder Chen Jiping, a former senior Communist Party official, now retired, 
admitted in March 2013 that pollution is now the single greatest cause of social 


unrest in the country, even more than land disputes. 

China's unelected leaders have long since deflected demands for democracy and 
human rights by touting the ruling party's record of delivering galloping economic 
growth. As Li Bo puts it, the rhetoric was always, "We get rich first, we deal with 


the environment problems second." That worked for a long time, but now, he says, 
"their argument has all of a sudden suffocated in the smog." 

The pressure for a more sustainable development path has forced the 
government to cut its targeted growth to a rate lower than China had experienced 
in more than a decade, and to launch huge alternative energy programs. Many 
dirty-energy projects, meanwhile, have been canceled or delayed. In 2011, a third 
of the Chinese coal-fired power plants that had been approved for construction 
"were stalled and investments in new coal plants weren't even half the level they 
were in 2005," according to Justin Guay, associate director of the Sierra Club's 
International Climate Program. "Even better, China actually closed down over 80 
gigawatts of coal plants between 2001 — 2010 and is planning to phase out another 
20 GW. To put that in perspective that's roughly the size of all electricity sources 
in Spain, home to the world's 1 1th largest electricity sector." (In an effort to reduce 
smog, the government is also exploring the potential for natural gas fracking, but 
in an earthquake-prone country with severe water shortages, it's a plan unlikely to 
quell unrest.) 

All this pushback from within China is of huge significance to the broader fossil- 
fuel resistance, from Australia to North America. It means that if tar sands 
pipelines and coal export terminals can be held off for just a few more years, the 
market for the dirty products the coal and oil companies are trying to ship to Asia 
could well dry up. Something of a turning point took place in July 2013 when the 
multinational investment banking firm Goldman Sachs published a research paper 
titled, "The Window for Thermal Coal Investment Is Closing." Less than six 
months later, Goldman Sachs sold its 49 percent stake in the company that is 
developing the largest of the proposed coal export terminals, the one near 
Bellingham, Washington, having apparently concluded that window had already 



These victories add up: they have kept uncountable millions of tons of carbon 
and other greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere. Whether or not climate change 
has been a primary motivator, the local movements behind them deserve to be 
recognized as unsung carbon keepers, who, by protecting their beloved forests, 
mountains, rivers, and coastlines, are helping to protect all of us. 


Fossil Free: The Divestment Movement 

Climate activists are under no illusion that shutting down coal plants, blocking tar 
sands pipelines, and passing tracking bans will be enough to lower emissions as 
rapidly and deeply as science demands. There are just too many extraction 
operations already up and running and too many more being pushed 
simultaneously. And oil multinationals are hyper-mobile — they move wherever 
they can dig. 

With this in mind, discussions are under way to turn the "no new fossil frontiers" 
principle behind these campaigns into international law. Proposals include a 
Europe- wide ban on fracking (in 2012, more than a third of the 766 members of 


the European Parliament cast votes in favor of an immediate moratorium). There 
is a growing campaign calling for a worldwide ban on offshore drilling in the 
sensitive Arctic region, as well as in the Amazon rainforest. And activists are 
similarly beginning to push for a global moratorium on tar sands extraction 
anywhere in the world, on the grounds that it is sufficiently carbon-intensive to 
merit transnational action. 

Another tactic spreading with startling speed is the call for public interest 
institutions like colleges, faith organizations, and municipal governments to sell 
whatever financial holdings they have in fossil companies. The divestment 
movement emerged organically out of various Blockadia- style attempts to block 
carbon extraction at its source — specifically, out of the movement against 
mountaintop removal coal mining in Appalachia, which was looking for a tactic to 
put pressure on coal companies that had made it clear that they were indifferent to 
local opinion. Those local activists were later joined by a national and then 
international campaign spearheaded by, which extended the divestment 
call to include all fossil fuels, not just coal. The idea behind the tactic was to target 
not just individual unpopular projects but the logic that is driving this entire wave 
of frenetic, high-risk extraction. 

The divestment campaign is based on the idea — outlined so compellingly by Bill 
McKibben — that anyone with a basic grasp of arithmetic can look at how much 
carbon the fossil fuel companies have in their reserves, subtract how much carbon 
scientists tell us we can emit and still keep global warming below 2 degrees 
Celsius, and conclude that the fossil fuelcompanies have every intention of pushing 
the planet beyond the boiling point. 

These simple facts have allowed the student-led divestment movement to put the 
fossil fuel companies' core business model on trial, arguing that they have become 
rogue actors whose continued economic viability relies on radical climate 


destabilization — and that, as such, any institution claiming to serve the public 
interest has a moral responsibility to liberate itself from these odious profits. "What 
the fossil fuel divestment movement is saying to companies is your fundamental 
business model of extracting and burning carbon is going to create an 
uninhabitable planet. So you need to stop. You need a new business model," 


explains Chloe Maxmin, coordinator of Divest Harvard. And young people have 
a special moral authority in making this argument to their school administrators: 
these are the institutions entrusted to prepare them for the future; so it is the height 
of hypocrisy for those same institutions to profit from an industry that has declared 
war on the future at the most elemental level. 

No tactic in the climate wars has resonated more powerfully. Within six months 
of the campaign's official launch in November 2012, there were active divestment 
campaigns on over three hundred campuses and in more than one hundred U.S. 
cities, states, and religious institutions. The demand soon spread to Canada, 
Australia, the Netherlands, and Britain. At the time of publication, thirteen U.S. 
colleges and universities had announced their intention to divest their endowments 
of fossil fuel stocks and bonds, and the leaders of more than twenty-five North 
American cities had made similar commitments, including San Francisco and 
Seattle. Around forty religious institutions had done the same. The biggest victory 
to date came in May 2014 when Stanford University — with a huge endowment 


worth $18.7 billion — announced it would be selling its coal stocks.^ 

Critics have been quick to point out that divestment won't bankrupt Exxon; if 
Harvard, with its nearly $33 billion endowment, sells its stock, someone else will 
snap it up. But this misses the power of the strategy: every time students, 
professors, and faith leaders make the case for divestment, they are chipping away 
at the social license with which these companies operate. As Sara Blazevic, a 
divestment organizer at Swarthmore College, puts it, the movement is "taking 
away the hold that the fossil fuel industry has over our political system by making 
it socially unacceptable and morally unacceptable to be financing fossil fuel 
extraction." And Cameron Fenton, one of the leaders of the divestment push in 
Canada, adds, "No one is thinking we're going to bankrupt fossil fuel companies. 
But what we can do is bankrupt their reputations and take away their political 



The eventual goal is to confer on oil companies the same status as tobacco 
companies, which would make it much easier to make other important demands — 
like bans on political donations from fossil fuel companies and on fossil fuel 
advertising on television (for the same public health reasons that we ban broadcast 


cigarette ads). Crucially, it might even create the space for a serious discussion 
about whether these profits are so illegitimate that they deserve to be appropriated 
and reinvested in solutions to the climate crisis. Divestment is just the first stage 
of this delegitimization process, but it is already well under way. 

None of this is a replacement for major policy changes that would regulate 
carbon reduction across the board. But what the emergence of this networked, 
grassroots movement means is that the next time climate campaigners get into a 
room filled with politicians and polluters to negotiate, there will be many 
thousands of people outside the doors with the power to amp up the political 
pressure significantly — with heightened boycotts, court cases, and more militant 
direct action should real progress fail to materialize. And that is a very significant 
shift indeed. 

Already, the rise of Blockadia and the fossil fuel divestment movement is having 
a huge impact on the mainstream environmental community, particularly the Big 
Green groups that had entered into partnerships with fossil fuel companies (never 
mind The Nature Conservancy, with its own Texas oil and gas operation . . .). Not 
surprisingly, some of the big pro-corporate green groups view this new militancy 
as an unwelcome intrusion on their territory. When it comes to fracking in 
particular, groups like the Environmental Defense Fund have pointedly not joined 
grassroots calls for drilling bans and a rapid shift to 100 percent renewables, but 
have instead positioned themselves as brokers, offering up "best practices" — 
developed with industry groups — that will supposedly address local environmental 
concerns. (Even when locals make it abundantly clear that the only best practice 
they are interested in is an unequivocal ban on fracking.) "We fear that those who 
oppose all natural gas production everywhere are, in effect, making it harder for 
the U.S. economy to wean itself from dirty coal," charged EDF chief counsel Mark 



Predictably, these actions have provoked enormous tensions, with grassroots 
activists accusing the EDF of providing cover for polluters and undercutting their 



But not all the Big Greens are reacting this way. Some — like Food & Water 
Watch,, Greenpeace, Rainforest Action Network, and Friends of the 
Earth — have been a central part of this new wave of anti-fossil fuel activism from 
the beginning. And for others that were more ambivalent, the rapid spread of a 
new, take-no-prisoners climate movement appears to have been a wake-up call; a 
reminder that they had strayed too far from first principles. This shift has perhaps 
been clearest at the Sierra Club, which, under the leadership of its former executive 


director, Carl Pope, had attracted considerable controversy with such corporate- 
friendly actions as lending its logo to a line of "green" cleaning products owned 
by Clorox. Most damaging, Pope had been an enthusiastic supporter of natural gas 
and had appeared publicly (even lobbying on Capitol Hill) to sing the praises of 
the fossil fuel alongside Aubrey McClendon, then CEO of Chesapeake Energy — 
a company at the forefront of the hydraulic tracking explosion. Many local 
chapters, neck deep in battles against fracking, had been livid. And it would later 
emerge that the Sierra Club was, in this same period, secretly receiving many 
millions in donations from Chesapeake — one of the biggest controversies to hit the 
movement in decades. 

A great deal has changed at the organization in the years since. The Sierra Club' s 
new executive director, Michael Brune, put an end to the secret arrangement with 
Chesapeake and canceled the Clorox deal. (Though the money was replaced with 
a huge donation from Michael Bloomberg's foundation, which — though this was 
not known at the time — is significantly invested in oil and natural gas.) Brune was 
also arrested outside the White House in a protest against the construction of 
Keystone XL tar sands pipeline, breaking the organization's longtime ban on 
engaging in civil disobedience. Perhaps most significantly, the Sierra Club has 
joined the divestment movement. It now has a clear policy against investing in, or 


taking money from, fossil fuel companies and affiliated organizations. 

In April 2014, the Natural Resources Defense Council announced that it had 
helped create "the first equity global index tool that will exclude companies linked 
to exploration, ownership or extraction of carbon-based fossil fuel reserves. This 
new investment tool will allow investors who claim to be socially conscious, 
including foundations, universities, and certain pension groups, to align their 
investments with their missions." The rigor of this new tool remains to be tested 
(and I have my doubts) but it represents a shift from a year earlier, when the NRDC 
admitted that its own portfolio was invested in mutual funds and other mixed assets 


that did not screen for fossil fuels. 

The divestment movement is even (slowly) being embraced by some of the 
foundations that finance environmental activism. In January 2014, seventeen 
foundations pledged to divest from fossil fuels and invest in clean energy. While 
none of the Big Green donors — the Hewlett and Packard Foundations or the 
Walton Family Foundation, for example, not to mention Ford or Bloomberg — 
were on board, several smaller ones were, including the Wallace Global Fund and 


the Park Foundation, both major funders of anti-fossil fuel activism. 


Up until quite recently, there was a widely shared belief that the big oil companies 
had such a fail-safe profit-making formula that none of this — not the divestment 
campaigns, not the on-the-ground resistance — would make any kind of dent in 
their power and wealth. That attitude needed some readjusting in January 2014 
when Shell — which raked in more revenue than any company in the world in 
2013 — announced fourth-quarter profits that blindsided investors. Rather than the 
previous year's $5.6 billion quarter, Shell's new CEO, Ben van Beurden, 
announced that the company was now expecting just $2.9 billion, a jarring 48 


percent drop. 

No single event could take the credit, but the company's various troubles were 
clearly adding up: its Arctic misadventures, the uncertainty in the tar sands, the 
persistent political unrest in Nigeria, and the growing chatter about a "carbon 
bubble" inflating its stock. Reacting to the news, the financial research company 
Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. noted that the plummet was "highly unusual for an 


integrated oil company" and admitted that it was "a bit shellshocked." 

The Democracy Crisis 

As the anti-fossil fuel forces gain strength, extractive companies are beginning to 
fight back using a familiar tool: the investor protection provisions of free trade 
agreements. As previously mentioned, after the province of Quebec successfully 
banned fracking, the U.S. -incorporated oil and gas company Lone Pine Resources 
announced plans to sue Canada for at least $230 million under the North American 
Free Trade Agreement's rules on expropriation and "fair and equitable treatment." 
In arbitration documents, Lone Pine complained that the moratorium imposed by 
a democratically elected government amounted to an "arbitrary, capricious, and 
illegal revocation of the Enterprise's valuable right to mine for oil and gas under 
the St. Lawrence River." It also claimed (rather incredibly) that this occurred "with 
no cognizable public purpose" — not to mention "without a penny of 
compensation." 4 ^ 

It's easy to imagine similar challenges coming from any company whose 
extractive dreams are interrupted by a democratic uprising. And indeed after the 
Keystone XL pipeline was delayed yet again in April 2014, Canadian and 
TransCanada officials began hinting of a possible challenge to the U.S. 
government under NAFTA. 


In fact, current trade and investment rules provide legal grounds for foreign 
corporations to fight virtually any attempt by governments to restrict the 
exploitation of fossil fuels, particularly once a carbon deposit has attracted 
investment and extraction has begun. And when the aim of the investment is 
explicitly to export the oil, gas, and coal and sell it on the world market — as is 
increasingly the case — successful campaigns to block those exports could well be 
met with similar legal challenges, since imposing "quantitative restrictions" on the 


free flow of goods across borders violates a fundamental tenet of trade law. 

"I really do think in order to combat the climate crisis, fundamentally we need 
to strip the power out of the fossil fuel industry, which raises enormous investment 
challenges in the trade context," says liana Solomon, the Sierra Club's trade expert. 
"As we begin to regulate the fossil fuel industry, for example in the United States, 
the industry may increasingly respond by seeking to export raw materials, whether 
it's coal, or natural gas, and under trade law it is literally illegal to stop the exports 


of those resources once they're mined. So it's very hard to stop." 

It is unsurprising, then, that as Blockadia victories mount, so do the corporate 
trade challenges. More investment disputes are being filed than ever before, with 
a great many initiated by fossil fuel companies — as of 2013, a full sixty out of 169 
pending cases at the World Bank's dispute settlement tribunal had to do with the 
oil and gas or mining sectors, compared to a mere seven extraction cases 
throughout the entire 1980s and 1990s. According to Lori Wallach, director of 
Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch, of the more than $3 billion in compensation 
already awarded under U.S. free trade agreements and bilateral investment treaties, 
more than 85 percent "pertains to challenges against natural resource, energy, and 


environmental policies." 

None of this should be surprising. Of course the richest and most powerful 
companies in the world will exploit the law to try to stamp out real and perceived 
threats and to lock in their ability to dig and drill wherever they wish in the world. 
And it certainly doesn't help that many of our governments seem determined to 
hand out even more lethal legal weapons in the form of new and expanded trade 
deals, which companies, in turn, will use against governments' own domestic laws. 

There may, however, be an unexpected upside to the aggressive use of trade law 
to quash environmental wins: after a decade lull when few seemed to be paying 
attention to the arcane world of free trade negotiations, a new generation of 
activists is once again becoming attuned to the democratic threat these treaties 
represent. Indeed there is now more public scrutiny and debate about trade 
agreements than there has been in years. 


The point of this scrutiny, however, should not be to throw up our hands in the 
face of yet another obstacle standing in the way of sensible action on climate. 
Because while it is true that the international legal architecture of corporate rights 
is both daunting and insidious, the well-kept secret behind these deals is that they 
are only as powerful as our governments allow them to be. They are filled with 
loopholes and workarounds so any government that is serious about adopting 
climate polices that reduce emissions in line with science could certainly find a 
way to do so, whether by aggressively challenging trade rulings that side with 
polluters, or finding creative policy tweaks to get around them, or refusing to abide 
by rulings and daring reprisals (since these institutions cannot actually force 
governments to change laws), or attempting to renegotiate the rules. Put another 
way, the real problem is not that trade deals are allowing fossil fuel companies to 
challenge governments, it's that governments are not fighting back against these 
corporate challenges. And that has far less to do with any individual trade 
agreement than it does with the profoundly corrupted state of our political systems. 

Beyond Fossilized Democracies 

The process of taking on the corporate- state power nexus that underpins the 
extractive economy is leading a great many people to face up to the underlying 
democratic crisis that has allowed multinationals to be the authors of the laws 
under which they operate — whether at the municipal, state/provincial, national, or 
international level. It is this corroded state of our political systems — as fossilized 
as the fuel at the center of these battles — that is fast turning Blockadia into a 
grassroots pro-democracy movement. 

Having the ability to defend one' s community' s water source from danger seems 
to a great many people like the very essence of self-determination. What is 
democracy if it doesn't encompass the capacity to decide, collectively, to protect 
something that no one can live without? 

The insistence on this right to have a say in critical decisions relating to water, 
land, and air is the thread that runs through Blockadia. It's a sentiment summed up 
well by Helen Slottje, a former corporate lawyer who has helped around 170 New 
York towns to adopt anti-fracking ordinances: "Are you kidding me? You think 
you can just come into my town and tell me you're going to do whatever you want, 
wherever you want, whenever you want it, and I'm going to have no say? Who do 
you think you are?" I heard much the same from Marily Papanikolaou, a wavy- 


haired Greek mountain-bike guide who had been perfectly happy raising her 
toddlers and leading tourists through forest trails, but now spends her spare time at 
anti-mine demonstrations and meetings. "I can't let anyone come in my village and 
try to do this and not ask me for my permission, /live here!" And you can hear 
something awfully similar from Texas landowners, irate that a Canadian pipeline 
company tried to use the law of eminent domain to gain access to their family land. 
"I just don't believe that a Canadian organization that appears to be building a 
pipeline for their financial gain has more right to my land than I do," said Julia 
Trigg Crawford, who has challenged TransCanada in court over its attempt to use 
her 650-acre ranch near Paris, Texas, which her grandfather purchased in 1948.~ 
And yet the most jarring part of the grassroots anti-extraction uprising has been 
the rude realization that most communities do appear to lack this power; that 
outside forces — a far-off central government, working hand-in-glove with 
transnational companies — are simply imposing enormous health and safety risks 
on residents, even when that means overturning local laws. Fracking, tar sands 
pipelines, coal trains, and export terminals are being proposed in many parts of the 
world where a clear majority of the population has made its opposition 
unmistakable, at the ballot box, through official consultation processes, and in the 

And yet consent seems beside the point. Again and again, after failing to 
persuade communities that these projects are in their genuine best interest, 
governments are teaming up with corporate players to roll over the opposition, 
using a combination of physical violence and draconian legal tools reclassifying 


peaceful activists as terrorists. 

Nongovernmental organizations of all kinds find themselves under increasing 
surveillance, both by security forces and by corporations, often working in tandem. 
Pennsylvania's Office of Homeland Security hired a private contractor to gather 
intelligence on anti-fracking groups, which it proceeded to share with major shale 
gas companies. The same phenomenon is unfolding in France, where the utility 
EDF was convicted in 2011 of unlawfully spying on Greenpeace. In Canada, 
meanwhile, it was revealed that Chuck Strahl, then chair of the committee 
overseeing the country's spy agency, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, 
was registered as a lobbyist for Enbridge, the company behind the hugely 
controversial Northern Gateway tar sands pipeline. That was a problem because 
the National Energy Board had directed the agency to assess the security threats to 
pipeline projects, which was thinly veiled code for spying on environmentalists 
and First Nations.^ 


Strahl's dual role raised the question of whether Enbridge could also gain access 
to the information gleaned. Then it came out that Strahl wasn't the only one who 
seemed to be working for the government and the fossil fuel companies 
simultaneously. As the CBC reported, "Half of the other Harper government 
appointees keeping an eye on the spies also have ties to the oil business" — 
including one member who sits on the board of Enbridge Gas NB, a wholly owned 
regional subsidiary of the pipeline company, and another who had been on 


TransCanada's board. Strahl resigned amid the controversy; the others did not." 

The collusion between corporations and the state has been so boorishly defiant 
that it's almost as if the communities standing in the way of these projects are 
viewed as little more than "overburden" — that ugliest of words used by the 
extractive industries to describe the "waste earth" that must be removed to access 
a tar sands or mineral deposit. Like the trees, soil, rocks, and clay that the industry's 
machines scrape up, masticate, and pile into great slag heaps, democracy is getting 
torn into rubble too, chewed up and tossed aside to make way for the bulldozers. 

That was certainly the message when the three-person Joint Review Panel that 
had been so scared by the Heiltsuk community's welcome in Bella Bella finally 
handed down its recommendation to Canada's federal government. The Northern 
Gateway pipeline should go ahead, the panel announced. And though it 
enumerated 209 conditions that should be met before construction — from 
submiting caribou habitat protection plans to producing an updated inventory of 
waterway crossings "in both Adobe PDF and Microsoft Excel spreadsheet 


formats" — the ruling was almost universally interpreted as a political green light. 

Only two out of the over one thousand people who spoke at the panel's 
community hearings in British Columbia supported the project. One poll showed 
that 80 percent of the province's residents opposed having more oil tankers along 
their marine-rich coastline. That a supposedly impartial review body could rule in 
favor of the pipeline in the face of this kind of overwhelming opposition was seen 
by many in Canada as clear evidence of a serious underlying crisis, one far more 
about money and power than the environment. "Sadly, today's results are exactly 
what we expected," said anti-pipeline campaigner Torrance Coste, "proof that our 
democratic system is broken. "~ 

In a sense, these are merely local manifestations of the global democratic crisis 
represented by climate change itself. As Venezuelan political scientist Edgardo 
Lander aptly puts it, "The total failure of climate negotiation serves to highlight 
the extent to which we now live in a post-democratic society. The interests of 
financial capital and the oil industry are much more important than the democratic 


will of people around the world. In the global neoliberal society profit is more 
important than life." Or, as George Monbiot, The Guardian's indispensable 
environmental columnist, put it on the twenty-year anniversary of the Rio Earth 
Summit, "Was it too much to have asked of the world's governments, which 
performed such miracles in developing stealth bombers and drone warfare, global 
markets and trillion-dollar bailouts, that they might spend a tenth of the energy and 
resources they devoted to these projects on defending our living planet? It seems, 
sadly, that it was." Indeed, the failure of our political leaders to even attempt to 
ensure a safe future for us represents a crisis of legitimacy of almost unfathomable 

And yet a great many people have reacted to this crisis not by abandoning the 
promise of genuine self-government, but rather by attempting to make good on 
that promise in the spheres where they still have real influence. It's striking, for 
instance, that even as national governments and international agencies fail us, 
cities are leading the way on climate action around the world, from Bogota to 
Vancouver. Smaller communities are also taking the lead in the democratic 
preparation for a climate-changed future. This can be seen most clearly in the fast- 
growing Transition Town movement. Started in 2006 in Totnes — an ancient 
market town in Devon, England, with a bohemian reputation — the movement has 
since spread to more than 460 locations in at least forty-three countries worldwide. 
Each Transition Town (and this may be an actual town or a neighborhood in a 
larger city) undertakes to design what the movement calls an "energy descent 
action plan" — a collectively drafted blueprint for lowering its emissions and 
weaning itself off fossil fuels. The process opens up rare spaces for participatory 
democracy, with neighbors packing consultation meetings at city halls to share 
ideas about everything from how to increase their food security through increased 


local agriculture to building more efficient affordable housing. 

Nor is it all dry planning meetings. In Totnes, the local Transition group 
organizes frequent movie nights, public lectures, and discussions, as well as street 
festivals to celebrate each landmark toward greater sustainability. This too is part 
of responding to the climate crisis, as critical as having secure food supplies and 
building sturdy seawalls. Because a key determinant in how any community 
survives an extreme weather event is its connective tissue — the presence of small 
local businesses and common spaces where neighbors can get to know one another 
and make sure that elderly people aren't forgotten during crushing heat waves or 
storms. As the environmental writer and analyst David Roberts has observed, "the 
ingredients of resilience" are "overlapping social and civic circles, filled with 


people who, by virtue of living in close proximity and sharing common spaces, 
know and take care of each other. The greatest danger in times of stress or threat 
insolation. Finding ways of expanding public spaces and nurturing civic 
involvement is not just some woolly-headed liberal project — it's a survival 



The intimacy of local politics is also what has turned this tier of government into 
an important site of resistance to the carbon extraction frenzy — whether it's cities 
voting to take back control over a coal-burning utility that won't switch to 
renewables (as so many citizens are doing in Germany), or municipalities adopting 
policies to divest city holdings of fossil fuels, or towns passing anti-fracking 
ordinances. And these are not mere symbolic expressions of dissent. Commenting 
on the stakes of his client's court challenge to local anti-fracking ordinances, 
Thomas West, a lawyer for Norse Energy Corporation USA, told The New York 
Times, "It's going to decide the future of the oil and gas industry in the state of 
New York."- 

Local ordinances are not the only — or even the most powerful — unconventional 
legal tools that may help Blockadia to extend its early victories. This became 
apparent when the panel reviewing Enbridge's Northern Gateway pipeline 
announced its recommendations. The news that it had greenlighted the federal 
government to approve the much loathed tar sands project was not, for the most 
part, greeted with despair. Instead, a great many Canadians remained convinced 
that the pipeline would never go ahead and that the British Columbia coast would 
be saved — no matter what the panel said or what the federal government did. 

"The federal cabinet needs First Nations' approval and social license from 
British Columbians, and they have neither," said Sierra Club BC campaigns 
director Caitlyn Vernon. And referring to the Save the Fraser Declaration signed 
by Chief Baptiste and so many others, she added, "First Nations have formally 
banned pipelines and tankers from their territories on the basis of Indigenous 
law." It was a sentiment echoed repeatedly in news reports: that the legal title of 
the province's First Nations was so powerful that even if the federal government 
did approve the pipeline (which it eventually did in June 2014), the project would 
be successfully stopped in the courts through Indigenous legal challenges, as well 
as in the forests through direct action. 

Is it true? As the next chapter will explore, the historical claims being made by 
Indigenous peoples around the world as well as by developing countries for an 


honoring of historical debts indeed have the potential to act as counterweights to 
increasingly undemocratic and intransigent governments. But the outcome of this 
power struggle is by no means certain. As always, it depends on what kind of 
movement rallies behind these human rights and moral claims. 

When a make-up hearing was scheduled by the Joint Review Panel months later, it was held in a 
predominantly white community elsewhere in the province. 

~ Sadly, this pristine UNESCO Biosphere Reserve is once again at risk after an international court ruling 
declared the waters surrounding the Caribbean islands to be legally owned by the government of Nicaragua 
(though the islands themselves remain part of Colombia). And Nicaragua has stated its intention to drill. 

For instance, in May 2013, sixty-eight groups and individuals — including Friends of the Earth, 
Greenpeace, and Robert Kennedy Jr. — signed a letter that directly criticized the EDF and and its president 
Fred Krupp for their role in creating the industry-partnered Center for Sustainable Shale Development 
(CSSD). "CSSD bills itself as a collaborative effort between 'diverse interests with a common goal,' but 
our goals as a nation are not, and cannot, be the same as those of Chevron, Consol Energy, EQT 
Corporation, and Shell, all partners in CSSD," the letter states. "These corporations are interested in 
extracting as much shale gas and oil as possible, and at a low cost. We are interested in minimizing the 
extraction and consumption of fossil fuels and in facilitating a rapid transition to the real sustainable energy 
sources — the sun, the wind, and hydropower." 

1 Reached by email, Carl Pope, who had not previously commented on the controversy, explained his 
actions as follows: "Climate advocates were at war with the coal industry, and at that moment Chesapeake 
was willing to ally with us. I understand the concerns of those who thought that alliance was a bad idea — 
but it is likely that without it about 75 of the pending 150 new coal fired power plants we stopped would 
have been built instead." He added, "What I do regret is the failure at the time to understand the scale and 
form that the shale gas and oil revolution would take, which led us to make inadequate investments in 
getting ready for the assault that would soon be coming at states like Pennsylvania, West Virginia and 
Colorado. That was a significant, and costly, failure of vision." 

~ This reached truly absurd levels in December 2013 when two twentysomething antifracking activists were 
charged with staging a "terrorism hoax" after they unfurled cloth protest banners at the headquarters of 
Devon Energy in Oklahoma City. Playing on the Hunger Games slogan, one of the banners said: "THE 
ODDS ARE NEVER IN OUR FAVOR." Standard, even benign activist fare— except for one detail. 
According to Oklahoma City Police captain Dexter Nelson, as the banner was lowered it shed a "black 
powder substance" that was meant to mimic a "biochemical assault," as the police report put it. That 
nefarious powder, the captain stated, was "later determined to be glitter." Never mind that the video of the 
event showed absolutely no concern about the falling glitter from the assembled onlookers. "I could have 
swept it up in two minutes if they gave me a broom," said Stefan Warner, one of those charged and facing 
the prospect of up to ten years in jail. 




Indigenous Rights and the Power of Keeping Our Word 

"I never thought I would ever see the day that we would come together. 
Relationships are changing, stereotypes are disappearing, there's more 
respect for one another. If anything, this Enbridge Northern Gateway 
has unified British Columbia." 

— Geraldine Thomas-Flurer, coordinator of the Yinka Dene Alliance, a First 
Nations coalition opposing the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline, 2013 1 

"There is never peace in West Virginia because there is never justice." 


— Labor organizer Mary Harris "Mother" Jones, 1925 

The guy from Standard & Poor' s was leafing through the fat binder on the round 
table in the meeting room, brow furrowed, skimming and nodding. 

It was 2004 and I found myself sitting in on a private meeting between two 
important First Nations leaders and a representative of one of the three most 
powerful credit rating agencies in the world. The meeting had been requested by 
Arthur Manuel, a former Neskonlith chief in the interior of British Columbia, now 
spokesperson for the Indigenous Network on Economies and Trade. 

Arthur Manuel, who comes from a long line of respected Native leaders, is an 
internationally recognized thinker on the question of how to force belligerent 
governments to respect Indigenous land rights, though you might not guess it from 
his plainspoken manner or his tendency to chuckle mid- sentence. His theory is that 
nothing will change until there is a crediblethreat that continuing to violate Native 
rights will carry serious financial costs, whether for governments or investors. So 
he has been looking for different ways to inflict those costs. 


That's why he had initiated a correspondence with Standard & Poor's, which 
routinely blesses Canada with a AAA credit rating, a much coveted indicator to 
investors that the country is a safe and secure place in which to sink their money. 
In letters to the agency, Manuel had argued that Canada did not deserve such a 
high rating because it was failing to report a very important liability: a massive 
unpaid debt that takes the form of all the wealth that had been extracted from 


unceded Indigenous land, without consent — since 1846. He further explained the 
various Supreme Court cases that had affirmed that Aboriginal and Treaty Rights 
were still very much alive. 

After much back-and-forth, Manuel had managed to get a meeting with Joydeep 
Mukherji, director of the Sovereign Ratings Group, and the man responsible for 
issuing Canada's credit rating. The meeting took place at S&P's headquarters, a 
towering building just off Wall Street. Manuel had invited Guujaaw, the 
charismatic president of the Haida Nation, to help him make the case about those 
unpaid debts, and at the last minute had asked me to come along as a witness. 
Unaware that, post- 9/11, official ID is required to get into all major Manhattan 
office buildings, the Haida leader had left his passport in his hotel room; dressed 
in a short-sleeved checked shirt and with a long braid down his back, Guujaaw 
almost didn't make it past security. But after some negotiation with security (and 
intervention from Manuel's contact upstairs), we made it in. 

At the meeting, Manuel presented the Okanagan writ of summons, and explained 
that similar writs had been filed by many other First Nations. These simple 
documents, asserting land title to large swaths of territory, put the Canadian 
government on notice that these bands had every intention of taking legal action 
to get the economic benefits of lands being used by resource companies without 
their consent. These writs, Manuel explained, represented trillions of dollars' 
worth of unacknowledged liability being carried by the Canadian state. 

Guujaaw then solemnly presented Mukherji with the Haida Nation's registered 
statement of claim, a seven-page legal document that had been filed before the 
Supreme Court of British Columbia seeking damages and reparations from the 
provincial government for unlawfully exploiting and degrading lands and waters 
that are rightfully controlled by the Haida. Indeed, at that moment, the case was 
being argued before the Supreme Court of Canada, challenging both the logging 
giant Weyerhaeuser and the provincial government of British Columbia over a 
failure to consult before logging the forests on the Pacific island of Haida Gwaii. 
"Right now the Canadian and British Columbia governments are using our land 
and our resources — Aboriginal and Treaty Rights — as collateral for all the loans 


they get from Wall Street," Manuel said. "We are in fact subsidizing the wealth of 


Canada and British Columbia with our impoverishment." 

Mukherji and an S&P colleague listened and silently skimmed Manuel's 
documents. A polite question was asked about Canada's recent federal elections 
and whether the new government was expected to change the enforcement of 
Indigenous land rights. It was clear that none of this was new to them — not the 
claims, not the court rulings, not the constitutional language. They did not dispute 
any of the facts. But Mukherji explained as nicely as he possibly could that the 
agency had come to the conclusion that Canada's First Nations did not have the 
power to enforce their rights and therefore to collect on their enormous debts. 
Which meant, from S&P's perspective, that those debts shouldn't affect Canada's 
stellar credit rating. The company would, however, continue to monitor the 
situation to see if the dynamics changed. 

And with that we were back on the street, surrounded by New Yorkers clutching 
iced lattes and barking into cell phones. Manuel snapped a few pictures of Guujaaw 
underneath the Standard & Poor's sign, flanked by security guards in body armor. 
The two men seemed undaunted by what had transpired; I, on the other hand, was 
reeling. Because what the men from S&P were really saying to these two 
representatives of my country's original inhabitants was: "We know you never 
sold your land. But how are you going to make the Canadian government keep its 
word? You and what army?" 

At the time, there did not seem to be a good answer to that question. Indigenous 
rights in North America did not have powerful forces marshaled behind them and 
they had plenty of powerful forces standing in opposition. Not just government, 
industry, and police, but also corporate-owned media that cast them as living in 
the past and enjoying undeserved special rights, while those same media outlets 
usually failed to do basic public education about the nature of the treaties our 
governments (or rather their British predecessors) had signed. Even most 
intelligent, progressive thinkers paid little heed: sure they supported Indigenous 
rights in theory, but usually as part of the broader multicultural mosaic, not as 
something they needed to actively defend. 

However, in perhaps the most politically significant development of the rise of 
Blockadia-style resistance, this dynamic is changing rapidly — and an army of sorts 
is beginning to coalesce around the fight to turn Indigenous land rights into hard 
economic realities that neither government nor industry can ignore. 


The Last Line of Defense 

As we have seen, the exercise of Indigenous rights has played a central role in the 
rise of the current wave of fossil fuel resistance. The Nez Perce were the ones who 
were ultimately able to stop the big rigs on Highway 12 in Idaho and Montana; the 
Northern Cheyenne continue to be the biggest barrier to coal development in 
southeastern Montana; the Lummi present the greatest legal obstacle to the 
construction of the biggest proposed coal export terminal in the Pacific Northwest; 
the Elsipogtog First Nation managed to substantially interfere with seismic testing 
for fracking in New Brunswick; and so on. Going back further, it's worth 
remembering that the struggles of the Ogoni and Ijaw in Nigeria included a broad 
demand for self-determination and resource control over land that both groups 
claimed was illegitimately taken from them during the colonial formation of 
Nigeria. In short, Indigenous land and treaty rights have proved a major barrier for 
the extractive industries in many of the key Blockadia struggles. 

And through these victories, a great many non-Natives are beginning to 
understand that these rights represent some of the most robust tools available to 
prevent ecological crisis. Even more critically, many non-Natives are also 
beginning to see that the ways of life that Indigenous groups are protecting have a 
great deal to teach about how to relate to the land in ways that are not purely 
extractive. This represents a true sea change overa very short period of time. My 
own country offers a glimpse into the speed of this shift. 

The Canadian Constitution and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms 
acknowledge and offer protection to "aboriginal rights," including treaty rights, 
the right to self-government, and the right to practice traditional culture and 
customs. There was, however, a widespread perception among Canadians that 
treaties represented agreements to fully surrender large portions of lands in 
exchange for the provision of public services and designated rights on much 
smaller reserves. Many Canadians also assumed that in the lands not covered by 
any treaty (which is a great deal of the country, 80 percent of British Columbia 
alone), non-Natives could pretty much do what they wished with the natural 
resources. First Nations had rights on their reserves, but if they once had rights off 
them as well, they had surely lost them by attrition over the years. Finders keepers 
sort of thing, or so the thinking went. 

All of this was turned upside down in the late 1990s when the Supreme Court of 
Canada handed down a series of landmark decisions in cases designed to test the 
limits of Aboriginal title and treaty rights. First came Delgamuukw v. British 
Columbia in 1997, which ruled that in those large parts of B.C. that were not 


covered by any treaty, Aboriginal title over that land had never been extinguished 
and still needed to be settled. This was interpreted by many First Nations as an 
assertion that they still had full rights to that land, including the right to fish, hunt, 
and gather there. Chelsea Vowel, a Montreal-based Metis educator and Indigenous 
legal scholar, explains the Shockwave caused by the decision. "One day, Canadians 
woke up to a legal reality in which millions of acres of land were recognized as 
never having been acquired by the Crown," which would have "immediate 
implications for other areas of the country where no treaties ceding land ownership 
were ever signed."^ 

Two years later, in 1999, the ruling known as the Marshalldecision affirmed that 
when the Mi'kmaq, Maliseet, and Passamaquoddy First Nations, largely based in 
New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, signed "peace and friendship" treaties with the 
British Crown in 1760 and 1761, they did not — as so many Canadians then 
assumed — agree to give up rights to their ancestral lands. Rather they were 
agreeing to share them with settlers on the condition that the First Nations could 
continue to use those lands for traditional activities like fishing, trading, and 
ceremony. The case was sparked by a single fisherman, Donald Marshall Jr., 
catching eels out of season and without a license; the court ruled that it was within 
the rights of the Mi'kmaq and Maliseet to fish year-round enough to earn a 
"moderate livelihood" where their ancestors had fished, exempting them from 


many of the rules set by the federal government for the non-Native fishing fleet. 

Many other North American treaties contained similar resource-sharing 
provisions. Treaty 6, for instance, which covers large parts of the Alberta tar sands 
region, contains clear language stating that "Indians, shall have right to pursue their 
avocations of hunting and fishing throughout the tract surrendered" — in other 
words, they surrendered only theirexclusive rights to the territory and agreed that 
the land would be used by both parties, with settlers and Indigenous peoples 
pursuing their interests in parallel ~ 

But any parallel, peaceful coexistence is plainly impossible if one party is 
irrevocably altering and poisoning that shared land. And indeed, though it is not 
written in the text of the treaty, First Nations elders living in this region contend 
that Indigenous negotiators gave permission for the land to be used by settlers only 
"to the depth of a plow" — considerably less than the cavernous holes being dug 
there today. In the agreements that created modern-day North America such land- 
sharing provisions form the basis of most major treaties. 

In Canada, the period after the Supreme Court decisions was a tumultuous one. 
Federal and provincial governments did little or nothing to protect the rights that 


the judges had affirmed, so it fell to Indigenous people to go out on the land and 
water and assert them — to fish, hunt, log, and build ceremonial structures, often 
without state permission. The backlash was swift. Across the country non-Native 
fishers and hunters complained that the "Indians" were above the law, that they 
were going to empty the oceans and rivers of fish, take all the good game, destroy 
the woods, and on and on. (Never mind the uninterrupted record of reckless 
resource mismanagement by all levels of the Canadian government.) 

Tensions came to a head in the Mi'kmaq community of Burnt Church, New 
Brunswick. Enraged that the Marshall decision had empowered Mi'kmaq people 
to exercise their treaty rights and fish outside of government- approved seasons, 
mobs of non-Native fishermen launched a series of violent attacks on their Native 
neighbors. In what became known as the Burnt Church Crisis, thousands of 
Mi'kmaq lobster traps were destroyed, three fish-processing plants were 
ransacked, a ceremonial arbor was burned to the ground, and several Indigenous 
people were hospitalized after their truck was attacked. And it wasn't just vigilante 
violence. As the months-long crisis wore on, government boats staffed with 
officials in riot gear rammed into Native fishing boats, sinking two vessels and 
forcing their crews to jump to safety in the water. The Mi'kmaq fishers did their 
best to defend themselves, with the help of the Mi'kmaq Warrior Society, but they 
were vastly outnumbered and an atmosphere of fear prevailed for years. The racism 
was so severe that at one point a non-Native fisherman put on a long-haired wig 
and performed a cartoonish "war dance" on the deck of his boat in front of 
delighted television crews. 

That was 2000. In 2013, a little more than an hour's drive down the coast from 
Burnt Church, the same Mi'kmaq Warrior Society was once again in the news, this 
time because it had joined with the Elsipogtog First Nation to fend off the Texas 
company at the center of the province's fracking showdown. But the mood and 
underlying dynamics could not have been more different. This time, over months 
of protest, the warriors helped to light a series of ceremonial sacred fires and 
explicitly invited the non-Native community to join them on the barricades "to 
ensure that the company cannot resume work to extract shale gas via fracking." A 
statement explained, "This comes as part of a larger campaign that reunites 
Indigenous, Acadian & Anglo people." (New Brunswick has a large French- 
speaking Acadian population, with its own historical tensions with the English- 


speaking majority.) 

Many heeded the call and it was frequently noted that protests led by the 
Elsipogtog First Nation were remarkably diverse, drawing participants from all of 


the province's ethnic groups, as well as from First Nations across the country. As 
one non- Native participant, Debbi Hauper, told a video crew, "It's just a real sense 
of togetherness. We are united in what is most important. And I think we're seeing 
more and more of government and industries' methods of trying to separate us. 

And let's face it, these methods have worked for decades. But I think we're waking 



There were attempts to revive the old hatreds, to be sure. A police officer was 
overheard saying "Crown land belongs to the government, not to fucking Natives." 
And after the conflict with police turned violent, New Brunswick premier David 
Alward observed, "Clearly, there are those who do not have the same values we 
share as New Brunswickers." But the community stuck together and there were 
solidarity protests in dozens of cities and towns across the country: "This is not 
just a First Nations campaign. It's actually quite a historic moment where all the 
major peoples of this province — English, French and Aboriginal — come together 
for a common cause," said David Coon, head of the Green Party in New 
Brunswick. "This is really a question of justice. They want to protect their common 
lands, water and air from destruction." 

By then many in the province had come to understand that the Mi'kmaq's rights 
to use their traditional lands and waters to hunt and fish — the same rights that had 
sparked race riots a dozen years earlier — represented the best hope for the majority 


of New Brunswickers who opposed fracking. And new tools were clearly 
required. Premier Alward had been a fracking skeptic before he was elected in 
2010 but once in office, he promptly changed his tune, saying the revenue was 
needed to pay for social programs and to create jobs — the sort of flip flop that 
breeds cynicism about representative democracy the world over. 

Indigenous rights, in contrast, are not dependent on the whims of politicians. 
The position of the Elsipogtog First Nation was that no treaty gave the Canadian 
government the authority to radically alter their ancestral lands. The right to hunt 
and fish, affirmed by the Marshall decision, was violated by industrial activity that 
threatened the fundamental health of the lands and waters (since what good is 
having the right to fish, for instance, when the water is polluted?). Gary Simon of 
the Elsipogtog First Nation explains, "I believe our treaties are the last line of 


defense to save the clean water for future generations." 

It's the same position the Lummi have taken against the coal export terminal 
near Bellingham, Washington, arguing that the vast increase in tanker traffic in the 
Strait of Georgia, as well as the polluting impacts of coal dust, violates their treaty- 
protected right to fish those waters. (The Lower Elwha Klallam tribe in 


Washington State made similar points when its leaders fought to remove two dams 
on the Elwha River. They argued, successfully, that by interfering with salmon 
runs the dam violated their treaty rights to fish.) And when the U.S. State 
Department indicated, in February 2014, that it might soon be offering its blessing 
to the Keystone XL pipeline, members of the Lakota Nation immediately 
announced that they considered the pipeline construction illegal. As Paula Antoine, 
an employee of the Rosebud tribe's land office, explained, because the pipeline 
passes through Lakota treaty-protected traditional territory, and very close to 
reservation land, "They aren't recognizing our treaties, they are violating our treaty 
rights and our boundaries by going through there. Any ground disturbance around 


that proposed line will affect us." 

These rights are real and they are powerful, all the more so because many of the 
planet's largest and most dangerous unexploded carbon bombs lie beneath lands 
and waters to which Indigenous peoples have legitimate legal claims. No one has 
more legal power to halt the reckless expansion of the tar sands than the First 
Nations living downstream whose treaty-protected hunting, fishing, and trapping 
grounds have already been fouled, just as no one has more legal power to halt the 
rush to drill under the Arctic's melting ice than Inuit, Sami, and other northern 
Indigenous tribes whose livelihoods would be jeopardized by an offshore oil spill. 
Whether they are able to exercise those rights is another matter. 

This power was on display in January 2014 when a coalition of Alaskan Native 
tribes, who had joined forces with several large green groups, won a major court 
victory against Shell's already scandal-plagued Arctic drilling adventures. Led by 
the Native village of Point Hope, the coalition argued that when the U.S. Interior 
Department handed out drilling permits to Shell and others in the Chukchi Sea, it 
failed to take into account the full risks, including the risks to Indigenous Inupiat 
ways of life, which are inextricably entwined with a healthy ocean. As Port Hope 
mayor Steve Oomittuk explained when the lawsuit was launched, his people "have 
hunted and depended on the animals that migrate through the Chukchi Sea for 
thousands of years. This is our garden, our identity, our livelihood. Without it we 
would not be who we are today. . . . We oppose any activity that will endanger our 
way of life and the animals that we greatly depend on." Faith Gemmill, executive 
director of Resisting Environmental Destruction on Indigenous Lands, one of the 
groups behind the lawsuit, notes that for the Inupiat who rely on the Chukchi Sea, 
"you cannot separate environmental impacts from subsistence impacts, for they 
are the same. 


A federal appeals court ruled in the coalition's favor, finding that the Department 
of the Interior's risk assessments were based on estimates that were "arbitrary and 
capricious," or presented "only the best case scenario for environmental 
harm." Rather like the shoddy risk assessments that set the stage for BP's 
Deepwater Horizon disaster. 

John Sauven, executive director of Greenpeace U.K., described the ruling as "a 
massive blow to Shell's Arctic ambitions." Indeed just days later, the company 
announced that it was putting its Arctic plans on indefinite hold. "This is a 
disappointing outcome, but the lack of a clear path forward means that I am not 
prepared to commit further resources for drilling in Alaska in 2014," said Shell 
CEO Ben van Beurden. "We will look to relevant agencies and the Court to resolve 
their open legal issues as quickly as possible." Without Indigenous groups raising 
the human rights stakes in this battle, it's a victory that might never have taken 

Worldwide, companies pushing for vast new coal mines and coal export 
terminals are increasingly being forced to similarly reckon with the unique legal 
powers held by Indigenous peoples. For instance, in Western Australia in 2013 the 
prospect of legal battles over native title was an important factor in derailing a 
planned $45 billion LNG (liquefied natural gas) processing plant and port, and 
though the state government remains determined to force gas infrastructure and 
fracking on the area, Indigenous groups are threatening to assert their traditional 
ownership and procedural rights in court. The same is true of communities facing 

1 8 

coal bed methane development in New South Wales. 

Meanwhile, several Indigenous groups in the Amazon have been steadfastly 
holding back the oil interests determined to sacrifice new swaths of the great 
forests, protecting both the carbon beneath the ground and the carbon-capturing 
trees and soil above those oil and gas deposits. They have asserted their land rights 
with increasing success at the Inter- American Court of Human Rights, which has 
sided with Indigenous groups against governments in cases involving natural 


resource and territorial rights. And the U'wa, an isolated tribe in Colombia's 
Andean cloud forests — where the tree canopy is perpetually shrouded in mist — 
have made history by resisting repeated attempts by oil giants to drill in their 
territory, insisting that stealing the oil beneath the earth would bring about the 
tribe's destruction. (Though some limited drilling has taken place.) 

As the Indigenous rights movement gains strength globally, huge advances are 
being made in recognizing the legitimacy of these claims. Most significant was the 
United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, adopted by the 


General Assembly in September 2007 after 143 member states voted in its favor 
(the four opposing votes — United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand — 
would each, under domestic pressure, eventually endorse it as well). The 
declaration states that, "Indigenous peoples have the right to the conservation and 
protection of the environment and the productive capacity of their lands or 
territories and resources." And further that they have "the right to redress" for the 
lands that "have been confiscated, taken, occupied, used or damaged without their 
free, prior and informed consent." Some countries have even taken the step of 
recognizing these rights in revised constitutions. Bolivia's constitution, approved 
by voters in 2009, states that Indigenous peoples "are guaranteed the right to prior 
consent: obligatory consultation by the government, acting in good faith and in 
agreement, prior to the exploitation of non-renewable natural resources in the 


territory they inhabit." A huge, hard-won legal victory. 

Might vs. Rights 

And yet despite growing recognition of these rights, there remains a tremendous 
gap between what governments say (and sign) and what they do — and there is no 
guarantee of winning when these rights are tested in court. Even in countries with 
enlightened laws as in Bolivia and Ecuador, the state still pushes ahead with 
extractive projects without the consent of the Indigenous people who rely on those 


lands. And in Canada, the United States, and Australia, these rights are not only 
ignored, but Indigenous people know that if they try to physically stop extractive 
projects that are clearly illegal, they will in all likelihood find themselves on the 
wrong side of a can of pepper spray — or the barrel of a gun. And while the lawyers 
argue the intricacies of land title in court, buzzing chainsaws proceed to topple 
trees that are four times as old as our countries, and toxic fracking fluids seep into 
the groundwater. 

The reason industry can get away with this has little to do with what is legal and 
everything to do with raw political power: isolated, often impoverished Indigenous 
peoples generally lack the monetary resources and social clout to enforce their 
rights, and anyway, the police are controlled by the state. Moreover the costs of 
taking on multinational extractive companies in court are enormous. For instance 
in the landmark "Rainforest Chernobyl" case in which Ecuador's highest court 
ordered Chevron to pay $9.5 billion in damages, a company spokesman famously 


said: "We're going to fight this until hell freezes over — and then we'll fight it out 


on the ice." (And indeed, the fight still drags on.)"" 

I was struck by this profound imbalance when I traveled to the territory of the 
Beaver Lake Cree Nation in northern Alberta, a community that is in the midst of 
one of the highest- stakes legal battles in the tar sands. In 2008, the band filed a 
historic lawsuit charging that by allowing its traditional territories to be turned into 
a latticework of oil and gas infrastructure, and by poisoning and driving away the 
local wildlife, the provincial and federal governments, as well as the British 
Crown, had infringed no fewer than fifteen thousand times on the First Nation's 


treaty rights to continue to hunt, fish, and trap on their territory. What set the case 
apart was that it was not about one particular infringement, but an entire model of 
poisonous, extractive development, essentially arguing that this model itself 
constituted a grave treaty violation. 

"The Governments of Canada and Alberta have made a lot of promises to our 
people and we intend to see those promises kept," said Al Lameman, the 
formidable chief of the Beaver Lake Cree Nation at the time the lawsuit was filed 
(Lameman had made history before, filing some of the first Indigenous human 
rights challenges against the Canadian government). Against the odds, the case has 
proceeded through the Canadian court system, and in March 2012 an Alberta court 
flatly rejected government efforts to have the case dismissed as "frivolous," an 


"abuse of the Court's process," and "unmanageable." 

A year after that ruling, I met Al Lameman, now retired, and his cousin 
Germaine Anderson, an elected band councilor, as well as the former chief's niece, 
Crystal Lameman, who has emerged as one of the most compelling voices against 
the tar sands on the international stage. These are three of the people most 
responsible for moving the lawsuit forward, and Germaine Anderson had invited 
me to a family barbecue to discuss the case. 

It was early July and after a long dark winter it was as if a veil had lifted: the sun 
was still bright at 10 p.m. and the northern air had a thin, baked quality. Al 
Lameman had aged considerably in recent years and slipped in and out of the 
conversation. Anderson, almost painfully shy, had also struggled with her health. 
The spot where the family met for this gathering was where she spent the summer 
months: a small trailer in a clearing in the woods, without running water or 
electricity, entirely off the grid. I knew the Beaver Lake Cree were in a David and 
Goliath struggle. But on that endless summer evening, I suddenly understood what 
this actually meant: some of the most marginalized people in my country — many 
of them, like all the senior members of the Lameman clan, survivors of the 


intergenerational trauma of abusive residential schools — are taking on some of the 
wealthiest and most powerful forces on the planet. Their heroic battles are not just 
their people's best chance of a healthy future; if court challenges like Beaver 
Lake's can succeed in halting tar sands expansion, they could very well be the best 
chance for the rest of us to continue enjoying a climate that is hospitable to human 
life. That is a huge burden to bear and that these communities are bearing it with 
shockingly little support from the rest of us is an unspeakable social injustice. A 
few hours north, a different Indigenous community, the Athabasca Chipewyan 
First Nation (ACFN), recently launched another landmark lawsuit, this one taking 
on Shell and the Canadian government over the approval of a huge tar sands mine 
expansion. The band is also challenging another Shell project, the proposed Pierre 
River Mine, which it says "would significantly impact lands, water, wildlife and 
the First Nation's ability to utilize their traditional territory." Once again the 
mismatch is staggering. The ACFN, with just over one thousand members and an 
operating budget of about $5 million, is battling both the Canadian government 
and Shell, with its 92,000 employees across more than seventy countries and 2013 
global revenues of $451.2 billion. Many communities see odds like these and, 


understandably, never even get in the ring. 

It is this gap between rights and resources — between what the law says and what 
impoverished people are able to force vastly more powerful entities to do — that 
government and industry have banked on for years. 

"Honour the Treaties" 

What is changing is that many non-Native people are starting to realize that 
Indigenous rights — if aggressively backed by court challenges, direct action, and 
mass movements demanding that they be respected — may now represent the most 
powerful barriers protecting all of us from a future of climate chaos. Which is why, 
in many cases, the movements against extreme energy extraction are becoming 
more than just battles against specific oil, gas, and coal companies and more, even, 
than pro-democracy movements. They are opening up spaces for a historical 
reconciliation between Indigenous peoples and non-Natives, who are finally 
understanding that, at a time when elected officials have open disdain for basic 
democratic principles, Indigenous rights are not a threat, but a tremendous gift. 
Because the original Indigenous treaty negotiators in much of North America had 
the foresight to include language protecting their right to continue living off their 


traditional lands, they bequeathed to all residents of these and many other countries 
the legal tools to demand that our governments refrain from finishing the job of 
flaying the planet. And so, in communities where there was once only anger, 
jealousy, and thinly veiled racism, there is now something new and unfamiliar. 
"We're really thankful for our First Nations partners in this struggle," said Lionel 
Conant, a property manager whose home in Fort St. James, British Columbia, is 
within sight of the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline. "[They've] got the legal 
weight to deal with [the pipeline] ... because this is all unceded land." In 
Washington State, anti-coal activists talk about the treaty rights of the Lummi as 
their "ace in the hole" should all other methods of blocking the export terminals 
fail. In Montana, the Sierra Club's Mike Scott told me bluntly, "I don't think 
people understand the political power Natives have as sovereign nations, often 
because they lack the resources to exercise that power. They can stop energy 

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projects in a way we can t. 

In New Brunswick, Suzanne Patles, a Mi'kmaq woman involved in the anti- 
fracking movement, described how non-Natives "have reached out to the 


Indigenous people to say 'we need help.' " Which is something of a turnaround 
from the saviorism and pitying charity that have poisoned relationships between 
Indigenous peoples and well-meaning liberals for far too long. It was in the context 
of this gradual shift in awareness that Idle No More burst onto the political scene 
in Canada at the end of 2012 and then spread quickly south of the border. North 
American shopping centers — from the enormous West Edmonton Mall to 
Minnesota's Mall of America — were suddenly alive with the sounds of hand 
drums and jingle dresses as Indigenous people held flash mob round dances across 
the continent at the peak of the Christmas shopping season. In Canada, Native 
leaders went on hunger strikes, and youths embarked on months-long spiritual 
walks and blockaded roads and railways. 

The movement was originally sparked by a series of attacks by the Canadian 
government on Indigenous sovereignty, as well as its all-out assault on existing 
environmental protections, particularly for water, to pave the way for rapid tar 
sands expansion, more mega- mines, and projects like Enbridge's Northern